Building Inclusive Cultures: Ava Benach, Transgender Lawyer and Immigration Law Expert, Tells her Story

Us and them. Good and bad. What is natural and what is unnatural. For too long these simplistic, socially-constructed, terms have dominated mainstream discourse on a host of issues, shaping the way we see ourselves and others. The inevitable outcome of thinking in such a way is that differences are exacerbated while similarities and connections are ignored, rendering those who do not fit into these restrictive norms as social and political outcasts. In terms of the legal profession, it is clear that the ‘us’, ‘good’ and ‘natural’ has always referred to the traditional image of a lawyer: white, heterosexual and from a privileged background. Challenging this autocracy is proving to be difficult enough, with the percentages of lawyers from diverse, non-traditional backgrounds remaining depressingly low, despite an increase in awareness and diversity initiatives. With evidence of the business case for diversity becoming increasingly available and overwhelming, combined with a seemingly obvious moral imperative, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what is going wrong, leading most commentators to blame the culture. Nobody is denying that this is a massive task that will require absolute commitment, but there are numerous examples of practical solutions and success stories that, if replicated, can gradually makes those changes. I had the pleasure of speaking to Ava Benach, a founding partner of Benach Collopy, LLP, immigration law expert and a member of the very small community of transgender lawyers.

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Ava with her colleagues at Benach Collopy, LLP

“I wasn’t willing to admit it to myself. I wasn’t willing to risk everything. I didn’t think it was possible to do anything about it… I convinced myself it would be ridiculous and to act accordingly.”

 

It is a desperately sad day for the transgender community when I speak to Ava. On Transgender Day of Remembrance, we have recently heard that Vicky Thompson has been found dead, having been placed in an all-male prison despite living as a woman since her mid-teens. It is a terrible reminder of the basic lack of understanding that the Trans community faces every day, particularly evident in the emerging crisis faced by the prison system. Trans people are disproportionately discriminated against, with incidents of rape and sexual violence especially high. Despite gradual steps towards understanding in mainstream culture and clear scientific evidence that gender is not binary, as previously believed, in many cases to be transgender is to struggle silently, confined by uncertainty and insecurity.

“I wasn’t willing to admit it to myself. I wasn’t willing to risk everything. I didn’t think it was possible to do anything about it. I knew there were examples but most of the people that were presented as Trans went through suicidal periods or had serious problems with alcohol… There was a part of me that thought, ‘that’s not me, I’m clearly not reading this right…’ I’m 6ft4. I convinced myself it would be ridiculous and to act accordingly.”

It is difficult enough to even qualify as a lawyer, let alone to make partner and eventually co-found your own firm. It is almost impossible to imagine the strength and sacrifice it must have taken to reach those heights while feeling as though you are hiding your true identity. Ava, however, didn’t let her internal struggles get in the way of success and happiness.

“People have an amazing ability to get used to a certain amount of pain and then not even recognise it as pain anymore.”

 

I filled my life with a lot of good stuff though. I’m married, have been for 16 years, and I’m staying married. I’ve got three kids who are spectacular and a job I absolutely love. Everything I did was going great. It wasn’t until I hit a rough patch professionally that the place I had put it could no longer contain it.”

No two people’s struggle is the same but the feeling of having to hide or alter an aspect of yourself is something that resonates with many lawyers, particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds. There is a quite harmful expectation that a lawyer, as the person who advocates to solve the problem, should also be exempt from internal or personal struggles. As an immigration lawyer, Ava represents some of the most vulnerable in the world, often having fled brutality, marginalisation or economic collapse. For a long time she found it difficult to associate with her own pain, having seen the suffering of her clients.

“Who am I to whine about not feeling like you’re in the right body, with your privileged upper-class role, with a home and a family and safety. It all felt so small. I needed perspective. I didn’t feel entitled to feel that way because people had much bigger problems than I did…People have an amazing ability to get used to a certain amount of pain and then not even recognise it as pain anymore.”

It was like a hurricane came through… Eventually I got to the point of no, I don’t want to put it back. Partially, of course, because you can’t.”

 

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When you listen to Ava talk about her clients there is compassion audible in every syllable and a level of empathy for their story that is rare to find. Not only does she want to help them remain in the country, she wants them to feel cared for. By offering warmth, a cup of coffee, a hug and maybe crayons for their children. Ava and her firm try to fulfil the hopes and expectations of those who’ve risked everything to migrate to the USA.

“One of the things that we have to show as immigration lawyers is extreme hardship, to prove people should be allowed to stay in the USA. People carry round with them a lot of pain that they’ve gotten used to. They don’t look at themselves as someone who suffers because they’re used to it. So I always encourage people who are going through these issues to go and see a therapist, to discover the emotional trauma that has been locked away.“

When Ava confronted her own crisis, she was opening up something that had been locked away her whole life. Having thought it would be risking everything to identify as a woman, what she found was that the really terrifying prospect was to ignore it.

It was like a hurricane came through. I went to see a therapist, somebody who specialised in gender issues. ‘This problem, which I had contained successfully for so long, it’s here now. Can you put it back where I had it?’ Eventually I got to the point of no, I don’t want to put it back. Partially, of course, because you can’t.”

For some people, dealing with their identity is a daily battle and it can be even scarier to admit needing help. It can be easy to forget that nobody is ever complete, we are always a work in progress, whoever we are. For Ava, getting help was the beginning of a long period of examining pain that had been ignored for years and rediscovering her identity.

“It’s not the profession itself, it’s the position you occupy for people… I felt people would doubt my judgement. If she’s crazy enough to do that to herself, what kind of judgement is she going to be able to bring to my case?”

 

“People tend to think transitioning is something that has a beginning or an end. Was it when I sat down and told my kids? Or the day after when I had to tell the entire community because my kids started talking? Was it the day I put it on Facebook or decided I was never going to dress as a man again. To me, it goes all the way back to about 7 or 8 years when I got myself some help. That’s when it started for me.”

By tapping into her own struggles, by allowing herself to be open about her gender and confront the vulnerability that comes with such openness, Ava is able to better empathise with her clients, family and friends. While the response from her clients has been overwhelmingly positive, she was initially fearful of judgement and a lack of trust.

“It’s not the profession itself, it’s the position you occupy for people. I represent people facing deportation to places they know they are going to be harmed. I represent people who are fighting to stay with their families… I felt people would doubt my judgement. If she’s crazy enough to do that to herself, what kind of judgement is she going to be able to bring to my case? The position we occupy, there is a need to be personally conservative and judicious. I don’t think changing one’s gender is perceived as very even-keeled.”

While some people may not consider changing one’s gender to be even-keeled, it is surely obvious that a lawyer’s ability is simply not determined by their gender identity. Identifying as transgender after years of fighting against it, risking personal and professional relationships, is an incredibly brave act and can only be admired. While Ava’s personal relationships have been reinforced by her openness, what has also been extremely encouraging has been the response from clients.

“I have been amazingly struck by how warm and accepting clients, both long-term and first-timers, have been towards me. Everybody has said: ‘You only live once, it’s important to be happy. In America you can be who you are’. That immigrant ethos makes them naturally welcoming. They react to me through the prism of their experience. They came here to do something with their lives, to be who they wanted to be.”

There can be no clearer evidence of the fact that tolerance, diversity and inclusion do not occur in isolation. Diversity breeds diversity and acting as an example, welcoming all people with open arms, is more powerful for building strong relationships, whether with clients or not, than any amount of certified success can ever be.

“I know a lot of young people…who’ve been the vanguard of the immigrant rights movement, and they’re going to law school now… and they are spectacular!”

 

Not that Ava lacks the traditional standards of excellence in legal education and practice. From George Washington University Law School, via Maggio & Kattar PC and Duane Morris LLP, Ava co-founded Benach Collopy, LLP in 2012. A second-generation Cuban immigrant, Ava’s route into the profession was remarkably typical.

“Law was an obvious choice. You go back a generation on my father’s side and it is all lawyers. My grandmother received her law degree in Havana in 1941, about 30 years before they were regularly given to women in the U.S. My great grandfather was attorney general of Cuba. My uncle was a judge. It was good training.”

What becomes clear is that diversity is not about your gender, sexual orientation or the colour of your skin. Diversity is an attitude that people carry with them, their approach to what is different and unfamiliar. For Ava, the way to improve diversity in the legal profession is obvious: there needs to be a clearly marked out path that is accessible to everyone.

“You have to go to the places you’re going to find diverse attorneys. Lots of the really intelligent, fantastic trainee attorneys that I know are not attending Harvard or wherever it may be. They are attending state schools or they’re going at night.”

What is required to be a top lawyer is rapidly shifting in the dynamic society we live in, with traditional, received notions becoming increasingly irrelevant. The simple truth is that the legal profession needs to recognise that fact and alter its methods and avenues of recruitment. For Ava, going to an Ivy League college or getting top marks in the bar exam are extremely limited indicators of the potential for success.

“It’s a powerful thing for one of my clients to go back to their community and say: ‘You know, my lawyer who fixed the problem, she’s transgender. Somebody who I trust with really important things is transgender’.”

 

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“I know a lot of young people, particularly Latinos, who’ve been the vanguard of the immigrant rights movement, and they’re going to law school now. But they’re going to state Schools, to smaller schools. And they are spectacular. They’ve fought through circumstances that most people wouldn’t believe. They’ve shown resourcefulness and resilience and dedication and all the things that would make them good lawyers.”

By raising the profile of diverse lawyers, by no longer accepting the archaic view that to be the best you have to have gone to a certain college or be from a certain socio-economic background, we can change perceptions of what actually constitutes excellence. The first step is to convince the clients.

“More and more lawyers from diverse backgrounds need to be given the chance to succeed. It’s a powerful thing for one of my clients to go back to their community and say: ‘You know, my lawyer who fixed the problem, she’s transgender. Somebody who I trust with really important things is transgender.’ Success and visibility are important. Actively encouraging, recruiting and promoting diverse attorneys.”

Of course, recruiting diverse lawyers is only half the battle. With the profession as a whole, and private practice in particular, leaking talent, it is clear that something must change. The talent drain is even more prominent for diverse lawyers as they get a disproportionately small amount of opportunities to progress up the ladder, potentially encouraging them to seek pastures new.  The solution, according to Ava, is to put associates in the hot-seat from the beginning and help them to build the essential skills they will need to achieve their goals, such as bringing in new clients.

“I’m never happier than if an associate handles their case from start to finish. If that happens and then the clients’ cousin calls them instead of me, then I’ve built something there.”

 

“I bring people along on pitches, client meetings, important things, giving them a chance to show their talents. I’m never happier than if an associate handles their case from start to finish. If that happens and then the clients’ cousin calls them instead of me, then I’ve built something there.”

Ava’s success has, of course, been built on the same foundations as many lawyers: acute intelligence, good judgement, steadfast determination. However, her biggest successes have been based on empathy and inclusion. By treating her colleagues and clients with such care, Ava, along with her partners has created an environment at Benach Collopy, LLP of self-perpetuating excellence.

“I’ve got a paralegal who’s going through law school at the moment and there’s no way I’m letting her go somewhere else when she’s qualified. She’s going to be a lawyer for us and she was actually a client originally.”

It must be an incredible feeling to see your work have such wonderful benefits, as there can surely be nobody better to work as an immigration lawyer than somebody who went through the process themselves. Even when she can’t recruit her clients, Ava still does everything in her power to make them feel as comfortable and cared for as possible.

“We have really friendly staff that offer clients a cup coffee as soon as they get in. It’s so huge to say, ‘hey, you’re here, you’re in our home – we’re going to take care of you’. We sought out a space that made people feel comfortable. We don’t have some grand, imposing, corporate lobby with a Jackson Pollock painting on the wall.  We have paintings by immigrants, we feature a client on the website each month and have a Facebook page we communicate with people on.”

“You’ve got a group of people who’ve made a decision to improve their lives and the lives of their families. They’ve shown resourcefulness, entrepreneurship and determination.” 

 

These seemingly small acts of kindness make an untold difference to her clients’ lives. Little details that go beyond advocating help to raise awareness of the realities faced by immigrants worldwide. By making their stories more visible and a part of the collective consciousness, you can help to change mainstream narratives and, therefore, slowly change culture.

“The people who’ve come here, who’ve fought to come here, who’ve walked from some poor village in Guatemala, are remarkable human beings. For everyone one that makes it there are 10 that don’t. You’ve got a group of people who’ve made a decision to improve their lives and the lives of their families. They’ve shown resourcefulness, entrepreneurship and determination…I think it’s impossible to do this practice without caring about your clients.”

What has struck me most about Ava, as we come towards the end of our conversation, is her capacity for mercy and the palpable compassion she has for everyone in her life. When carrying out her work, fighting for justice for those most vulnerable, Ava is working through the prism of her experience. She employs the skills and experience of years of education and practice alongside the emotional intelligence learned from having to face up to her own issues.

The legal profession is locked in a battle with itself, struggling to meaningfully confront its diversity and inclusion issues. In Ava’s experience, there is no substitute for being open to potential issues and tackling them head-on. In doing so, small shifts towards a more inclusive outlook can gradually change the culture.

What this has all taught me is that the world is a lot grayer than that… I don’t believe there is any fixed limit to mercy.”

 

“The thing I do that a lot of people have a hard time understanding is representing people convicted of criminal offences. Fighting for the right to remain in the USA, to remain with their families. Especially when they’ve done some pretty bad things.

Some people’s response is: ‘How could you help somebody who did terrible things? You want them in our community, among us, with our kids? What right do they have to remain here?’ That’s something a lot of people have a hard time understanding.

What this has all taught me is that the world is a lot grayer than that. The vast majority of people I’ve come across are people who did something stupid in a moment of weakness. They still have families and jobs and children, and good things in their lives.

Some people have used the act of conviction and imprisonment to change their lives in ways that are remarkable.

I don’t believe there is any fixed limit to mercy.”

It is easy to fall into the trap of evaluating things based on their most simple forms: good and bad, natural and unnatural. But what Ava’s story teaches is that the benefits of taking a careful, compassionate and nuanced look at any issue, regardless of how scary, are exponential. Once you get on the road to such a depth of understanding, the world suddenly opens up to understand you. As far as the legal profession is concerned, it is clear that the way to open the doors to diverse lawyers is to truly understand them, their concerns and their passions.

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You can follow Benach Collopy, LLP on Twitter here: @BenachRagland

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