WBA celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month by celebrating the Latinx members of our community.

“Dedicating this time each year to highlight the immense value we bring to the world is not only important but also serves as a powerful reminder that we are embraced and welcomed, no matter where we choose to sit at the table.”

Paulette M. Pagán is a White Collar/Criminal Defense Attorney at Price Benowitz LLP. As a former public defender, she believes every person is entitled to legal representation. Paulette also believes every person deserves access to adequate medical care. She is a member of the Board of Directors of My Little Patient, Inc., an international nonprofit organization dedicated to providing essential medical and dental assistance in underdeveloped regions around the world. This role has led her to volunteer in areas like rural Kenya and more.

As a criminal defense attorney, Paulette has represented clients facing myriad charges, from violent offenses to highly complex white-collar crimes. She has successfully tried numerous jury trials and secured favorable outcomes for her clients. She has defended clients facing charges such as murder, conspiracy, fraud, sex crimes, and gun-related charges, among others. She has represented a vast range of individuals, from CEOs charged with fraud to alleged leaders of international drug trafficking organizations.

Before establishing herself in DC, Paulette dedicated four years of her career to serving the indigent community of St. Louis County, MO as a public defender. Handling over 150 felony cases concurrently, her expertise and commitment were instrumental in achieving the highest number of dismissed felony cases within a single year in her last year of serving. Her work earned her the opportunity to guest lecture at the University of Missouri St. Louis on the topic of Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity.

Paulette enjoys guest lecturing and judging trial competitions at local universities. She is a member of the Women’s White Collar Defense Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She is also a proud member of the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia and the Hispanic National Bar Association.

Why did you join the WBA?
When I first began my legal career in DC, I only knew two women practicing law in the District. I was motivated to seek out opportunities to connect and learn from as many inspiring women as I could. Since becoming a part of this community, I’ve had the privilege of forming numerous close friendships and gaining invaluable insights. The support and opportunities provided by the WBA have been instrumental in fostering my growth and have enabled me to continuously build a strong network of resilient women in the legal profession.

How did your community growing up shape who you are now?
Growing up, I shuttled between Florida and Puerto Rico. My Puerto Rican family’s vibrant culture is a culture that thrives on resilience, celebrates diversity, and cherishes the bonds of family and community. My community’s collective wisdom – from both the Island and Stateside – established my foundational values and character of hard work, dignity, and respect for others. My commitment to giving back is no doubt a product of growing up in a culture that is devoted to ensuring the safety and success of one another. I take pride in my identity and my upbringing, forever mindful of the invaluable lessons that have shaped the person I am today.

What motivated you to enroll in law school?
During my undergraduate years, I attended a three-day seminar that revolved around criminal justice. It was an eye-opening experience. It exposed me to diverse perspectives from defense attorneys, prosecutors, and law enforcement professionals. Until that seminar, the concept of being a lawyer was something that I had never personally considered. I didn’t have any family or close family friends that were lawyers so it really never crossed my mind. I had no idea the profound impact a lawyer could have on individuals and communities. At this seminar, I realized not only could I make a difference in the community and help others; but I could also be a resource for my own family – one that had never been afforded to them before.

What advice would you give to a Hispanic/Latinx law student who aspires to be where you are now?
My first piece of advice is to proactively seek out conversations with attorneys from various backgrounds and ask them about their personal journeys. When I was a law student, not having any lawyers in my network meant I had to actively pursue advice on various aspects, such as which internships to apply for, how to decide what field of law to go into, or what classes to take. I made a deliberate effort to attend any law school networking events and engage with as many lawyers as I could to understand their career paths, what they found fulfilling about their work, and the steps they took to reach their current positions. These conversations will not only provide valuable insights but also help you make informed decisions about your own path in the legal field.

Next, I would advise to not let fear hold over your decisions. It’s easy to hesitate when faced with unfamiliar opportunities or the prospect of relocating to a new city. But if it’s a genuine aspiration of yours, take that leap of faith. Allow yourself to turn that fear into excitement and motivation, and you’ll discover that incredible opportunities await on the other side of your comfort zone.

Lastly, take the time to define what success means to you personally, and let that definition guide your journey. Don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to others, whether it’s their grades, job offers, or career paths. Set your own goals and recognize your own achievements. It’s easy to look to others to define what “making it” means, especially if you’re the first in your family to pursue a legal career without resources and aren’t sure what to expect. Just always remind yourself it’s up to you to decide what success looks like for yourself. This a is challenging profession so it is essential to celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how you choose to define them.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you personally, and why is it important to celebrate it?
Once a year, we have the opportunity to shine a light on the incredible contributions of the Hispanic/Latinx community. Particularly for first-generation Hispanics/Latinx, growing up can present unique challenges. When you don’t speak perfect Spanish or perfect English, or bouncing back and forth between two entirely different cultures, finding your place in the world can be an intimidating and frightening task. Dedicating this time each year to highlight the immense value we bring to the world is not only important but also serves as a powerful reminder that we are embraced and welcomed, no matter where we choose to sit at the table.

What progress or positive changes have you witnessed for the Hispanic/Latinx Heritage community in recent years?
The rise in the number of Spanish-speaking attorneys in recent years has been notable. Especially from the perspective of someone practicing criminal law. I have witnessed firsthand the immense challenges individuals face when confronting criminal charges. The legal system can be daunting even for those fluent in English, but for those who are not, it can be particularly terrifying. Having legal representation that not only speaks your language but also understands and appreciates your cultural background can make all the difference when navigating the complexities of criminal charges. The presence of Spanish-speaking attorneys in the legal community plays a vital role in ensuring equitable access to legal services. My hope is that the number of Spanish-speaking attorneys continues to increase.

What are your hopes or aspirations for the future of the Hispanic/Latinx legal community?
I aspire to see more Hispanic/Latinx attorneys as judges and in executive positions. The presence of individuals from our community in these influential roles not only enriches the diversity of perspectives within the legal field but also serves as an inspiration to younger generations. When young aspiring attorneys see individuals of Hispanic/Latinx descent rise in these positions of leadership, it becomes more realistic for them to envision themselves achieving similar heights in their legal careers.

Do you have a mentor/hero?
My mother has been my unwavering role model throughout my life, both in my professional journey and on a personal level. She has been the force that taught me the essence of strength and intellect as a woman. From my earliest memories, she instilled in my sister and me the belief that education is the most powerful asset one can possess, a treasure that no one can ever take away from you. This foundational value stayed with me through law school and continues with me to this day. As a single mother who has dedicated her career to educating young children with disabilities, I am constantly amazed at how she managed to raise my sister and me while profoundly impacting the lives of children and their families every day. She has been my steadfast anchor through every challenge and triumph in my career, and I owe so much of my success to her support. She made the ultimate sacrifice of leaving her home, her language, and her family to provide for her children. I know but for her sacrifices, I would not be here today.

What is the best advice you have received?
The best advice I ever received was to just do it. Try the case. Accept that job in a new state where you know no one. Go to that networking event alone and walk up to a stranger. Ask that attorney or judge you look up to for coffee or lunch. The first jury trial I ever tried I had to step in for another attorney the morning of trial. It was nerve-wracking, but I went for it. I’ve found that when you push yourself to do the things that initially seem impossible, you often come out on the other side with experiences and growth beyond what you could have ever imagined. It’s a reminder that some of the most rewarding moments in life are those you never thought were possible.