40-year-old Cuban lawyers program wins diversity award
Neither thought they could practice law again once they fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba, but UF Law changed that.
“Long before diversity was an objective of The Florida Bar, UF helped diversify the field through the Cuban lawyer law school program,” said Harley Herman (JD 78), immediate past chair of the Equal Opportunities Law Section of The Florida Bar.
The program, which allowed about 200 lawyers to earn certifications to apply for admission to The Florida Bar in the ’70s, recently won UF Law a diversity award from The Florida Bar. The award comes as UF Law plans a 40th anniversary commemoration of the program in the next school year.
Stephen N. Zack (JD 71), who spent his formative years in Cuba and became the first Hispanic president of The Florida Bar in 1989 and of the American Bar Association in 2010, said the UF program was instrumental in shaping today’s law culture.
“I believe the program has paved the way for this generation of lawyers to feel accepted and valued in their new homeland,” he wrote in an email. “Many great lawyers came out of this program with warm feelings toward the University of Florida and the assistance it has given them.”
Launched at UF in the fall of 1973 and running until 1976, the program was one of two of its kind in the country, and it bridged a growing culture gap in the courts.
According to a 1973 Florida Supreme Court opinion, “An increasing number of cases in the courts of Florida involve Cubans or Cuban Americans, and there are presently approximately only 40 attorneys fluent in the Spanish language to adequately represent the increased Spanish-speaking population.”
The first class of 207 students consisted of more than 180 former Cuban lawyers living in the greater Miami area and included attorneys who had been judges and faculty at law schools in Cuba. The students ranged in age from mid-30s to mid-70s. One former judge, Adalberto Tosca, said he decided to resign from his position in his homeland because judges were told prior to their trials to impose death and other sentences on defendants charged with crimes against the revolution.
The move to Florida was “absolutely devastating” for some, said Herman, who has researched the program in detail. “They went from positions of prominence where they got to use their intelligence to only being able to find menial jobs.”
Jose Villalobos, now a partner at Ackerman Senterfitt in Miami, worked as a roofer in Miami for a decade before the program was established. Herman said Villalobos spoke of being called in for questioning by the justices of the Supreme Court of Cuba and being taken from the court and beaten after he refused to swear allegiance to the Castro government. Completion of the Cuban Lawyer Program at UF Law allowed him to resume his career as an attorney upon admission to The Florida Bar.
Once the legal framework was in place, UF Law personnel developed the curriculum and birthed a functioning program in a matter of months. In addition to classes in Gainesville, organizers made arrangements for UF faculty to fly to Miami each week to teach because it was cheaper to fly the instructors down than to have hundreds of students fly to Gainesville. By 1975, the work had paid off, and the first class of Cuban lawyers graduated prepared to re-enter the field they prized.
“When you realize these people rose above all that — came to the university to study and sought admission to The Florida Bar — it’s really mind-boggling with everything else they had to deal with,” Herman said. “They loved the law so much.”