Dust Off Your Spanish Skills, CWBA Members!

Updated: Aug 18

Veronique Van Gheem explains why they are important.


I remember the first time I decided to go to a networking event for the Colorado Bar Association’s Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee. I recently graduated from CU Law and was clerking for the Denver District Court, when I saw an email from the CBA that said something along the lines of “Spanish Speaking Lawyers Happy Hour… All Levels of Speaking Ability Welcome.”


At that first happy hour, I found a home away from home. Before me was a group of dedicated, passionate attorneys who cared about the same causes that I did. I felt a level of camaraderie that rivaled my experience with my college cross country and track teams (If you have ever participated in a college varsity sport, you understand how close knit you get when you eat, sleep, travel, and train with the same individuals 24/7 for a four-year period of time.). Even more, I met my husband at one of these events. Spanish-speaking lawyers come from all different practice areas, sectors, and organization sizes. We are government, personal injury, bankruptcy, family law, immigration, employment, probate, real estate, and business attorneys. We are big-law attorneys that serve low-income pro bono clients after work. We represent Spanish-speaking business owners and developers at our solo firms. The one thing we have in common is that we are committed to using our professional skills to improve the lives of the Hispanic/Latino and Spanish-speaking communities of Colorado.


CBA SSLC at 2012 Denver Rock and Roll Half Marathon


Over time, I have come to love the people, the cultures, and the different walks of life all tied together by one language that Spanish speakers in the United States represent.


I embraced serving the Spanish-speaking community at a pretty early stage in life. During college, I minored in Spanish to complement my majors in Forestry and Biology. I received a grant to perform environmental work with an NGO in Oaxaca, Mexico, through my school’s Global Environmental Management Program. Then, I went home to Green Bay, WI, where I worked for an engineering firm and volunteered as an English tutor for a young Mexican woman at our county literacy program. In law school, I represented Spanish-speaking clients in our civil litigation clinic. As a law clerk, I was one of the only Spanish speakers in the domestic and civil dockets at the Denver District Court. In that capacity, I helped people set their hearings over the phone and explained family law procedures in Spanish to pro se litigants. Even as I moved up in my career with the Colorado Judicial Department, I continued to dedicate most of my free time to pursuing access to justice for the Hispanic/Latino and Spanish-speaking populations of Colorado.


The 2010 Census provides that approximately 22% of Coloradans identify as Hispanic or Latino. According to a report by the Latino Leadership Institute of the University of Denver, the population of Latinos in Colorado is supposed to grow to 33% over the next 20 years. The report emphasizes the need to understand the identity dispute of Latinos in Colorado in relation to their language and origin. Many people see Colorado Latinos as a homogenous group of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico. In contrast, the report shows that 47% of Latinos in Colorado speak only English at home, which is significantly higher than the national average of 27%. Also, 53% of Latinos in Colorado speak varying levels of Spanish. Of those who do, 78% speak English fluently. Less than 10% of all Latinos in Colorado speak Spanish only. English is the preferred language for Latinos in Colorado, given that nearly 80% of Latinos here are native-born. Only 5% of the entire state population is comprised of Latino immigrants. Yet, it is important to note that continuing to speak some Spanish in the home can be an important element of Latino culture.


With this background, the Colorado Judicial Department’s Annual Statistic Report still shows that 67,000 events in the state court system required Spanish interpreters in 2020. Further, state court statistical reports show a very high rate of pro se litigants in case types that impact people’s everyday lives, including those of Spanish speakers. In domestic cases, there is a 75% pro se party rate. The rates for district and county court civil dockets are 37% and 60%, respectively. Further analysis shows that many times the filing party in a district or county court civil case is represented, while a responding party is not. In fact, 97% of the time, respondents are unrepresented across the two case types. This does not even reflect what occurs at the federal, bankruptcy, and immigration court levels in Colorado.


2019 CBA SSLC Speed Mentoring Event


So, what does this mean? It means we need more lawyers serving modest means Spanish speakers and Latino/Hispanic individuals to ensure a fair system of justice.


What have we done? We traveled across the state with non-profit partners to provide Spanish speakers services in Pueblo, Greeley, Basalt, and the Denver Metro area. We translated pro se resource brochures from English to Spanish. We spoke at local schools to increase the pipeline of diversity to law schools. We volunteered for Law School Yes We Can as mentors. We gave attorneys an opportunity to practice their Spanish or speak their native language with other legal professionals. We encouraged the organizations we work for to hire summer associates from The Pledge to Diversity program. We ran family law clinics and filled out court forms for Spanish-speaking victims of domestic violence with Project Safeguard. We hosted speed mentoring events for Spanish-speaking law students to connect them to the local legal profession. We provided advice at free monthly legal clinics at Mi Casa Resource Center. We connected the community with legal resources and attorneys that can provide services in their language.


2021 CBA SSLC Summer Happy Hour at Raices Brewing


What do we do next? Maybe that’s up to you. Come join us in our mission. Reach out to CBA Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee Co-Chairs Veronique Van Gheem and Matt Skeen at coloradospanishspeakinglawyers@gmail.com. If not, use your skills to support the Hispanic/Latino community of Colorado in your own way.

Veronique Van Gheem is an Assistant City Attorney for the City of Boulder advising the City Manager, City Attorney, and various city departments on IT, construction, contract, procurement and environmental matters. Prior to joining the City of Boulder in 2021, Veronique was Senior Assistant Legal Counsel for the Colorado Judicial Department where she worked in the Executive Division of the State Court Administrator’s Office providing general advisory counsel for the Colorado courts, probation departments and the State Court Administrator. She is the past co-chair of the CWBA’s Publication Committee and helped launch The 1891 Blog. She is also a member of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee, the CBA Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee and was the Lead Attorney for the Project Safeguard Spanish-speaking Family Law Clinic for eight years. Veronique clerked for the Honorable Norman Haglund of the Denver District Court and served as the Conservation Easement Staff Attorney for the Colorado State Court Administrator’s Office from 2010 until 2013. Veronique, originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point in Forestry and Biology. She worked as a Restoration Ecologist from 2005 to 2007. Veronique is a 2010 graduate of the University of Colorado Law School.

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