Q&A with Paula Samper Salazar, Leading Pro Bono Lawyer in Latin America

Paula Samper Salazar is a partner at Gómez- Pinzón Zuleta, one of the most recognized law firms in Colombia. She was a member of the Drafting Committee of the Pro Bono Declaration for the Americas, an initiative promoted by the Cyrus Vance Center in New York that has been signed by more than 350 law firms in Latin America, United States and Canada. She is a founding member of Fundación Pro Bono Colombia (“FPB”), a clearing house that connects its membership of 31 Colombian law firms and 3 corporate legal groups with organizations and people in need of pro bono assistance. She has served as a member of FPB’s Board of Directors since 2008.

Samper has been recognized as a leader in the advancement of pro bono work in Colombia, including receiving an award from Chambers and Partners for her outstanding contribution to the legal profession in 2011, and the Latin Lawyer Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year award in 2013.

Q: You have been named as “the woman leader in pro bono matters” in Colombia: How did you discover your passion for pro bono work and how did your career path toward pro bono start?

You won´t believe this: ten years ago, I didn’t know what “pro bono” meant. When I arrived in New York during the Pro Bono Legal Summit of 2005, I discovered quite rapidly that this would become my passion: it is impossible to live in a country like Colombia and remain indifferent to the situation of so many persons who do not have access to social justice. Also, having practiced corporate law for 15 years, and having contributed to the growth of a law firm, I decided it was time to give back some of the privileges. From that moment on, there has not been one day in my professional life in which I haven’t devoted at least one hour of my time to pro bono work, both for clients and for the profession in general. I just couldn’t continue my professional career or find meaning in our profession without pro bono work.

Q: What are the most challenging issues you have faced in the process of developing pro bono work in your country and in Latin America?

In Latin America, people tended to confuse pro bono work with charitable work. I respect and admire charitable work, but pro bono work is a different concept altogether. It must become a commitment for our professionals, part of their day-to-day jobs, and it must be done with the same passion that they devote to paying clients. I think Latin American lawyers have finally started to understand the difference.

The second challenge would be to have the correct incentives and motivations, and actually delivering the work, not just announcing that you support pro bono work, but actually taking the cases. It is especially difficult with senior lawyers who tend to believe that it is sufficient for them to allow younger lawyers to do pro bono work and not become involved in the cases themselves. We need to lead by example! Only when young lawyers see that their admired senior colleagues devote time to a pro bono case, will they see the importance of doing it.

Q: You were part of the drafting committee for the Pro Bono Declaration for the Americas and founder of the Colombia’s first pro bono clearing house. Could you please tell us about those experiences and how they shaped your career?

The work in the drafting committee was fascinating: we had to come up with a definition of pro bono work that would work in 15 different countries, a commitment to a certain number of hours, and a common language. Founding the clearing house was only the natural result of the completion of the Declaration, but of course, it has become my passion to envision this clearing house as a strong, influential actor in our country. Never before has our country experienced a more difficult situation in our judicial system, and the work of FPB never and been more relevant!

Q: You have been involved in local initiatives in Colombia for strengthening the role of women in the legal profession. Could you please explain this initiative? What are your main concerns about the professional development of women in Latin America and Colombia?

Yes, I have also been active in issues affecting women in the legal profession. Maybe because I was the first woman partner in my firm, and the first mother…

I needed to send a very clear message to our younger attorneys: you can definitely be a mother and continue your career in a law firm. And law firms need to understand that losing young, experienced, talented female attorneys is not a wise strategic decision. However, law firms continue to have a majority of women at the junior levels and a minority at the senior levels. We must continue working on this.

Q: What are the main challenges that Latin American female lawyers face in the workplace?

Even though our countries have evolved positively, there still are certain barriers for women attorneys; certain biases still exist, for example, about the type of work they can do and the type of legal area that they “fit in.” In addition, women are still assigned the more mechanical work.

Q: According to the United Nations, Colombia is one of the countries where there are more women in management positions. Do you agree with that statement?

Certainly! If you compare it with other countries, Colombia is one of the best places to work for women.

Q: What is the percentage of female partners in Colombian law firms?

Less than 20%.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?

Approve and communicate policies that are oriented towards allowing women to advance their professional career in a law firm: flex time, extended maternity leave, child care, special compensation rules, the ability to seamlessly return to your career following maternity leave, and working from home. Otherwise, young women will work 5-6 years in the firm and then leave. It’s as simple as that.

Q: How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I think I have always been a sort of “motherly figure” in the firm. (Probably my two sons would say that I am a lawyer at home!)

Q: What advice would you give to young lawyers who are working towards a successful career and want to become leaders in their field?

Trust your instincts; demand from your employer the flexibility you need from them, but deliver your very best work, so that nobody doubts your commitment. Don’t assume things without asking first (women sometimes assume that their employer will not be flexible and they are ashamed to ask). Educate your sons and daughters with the correct attitudes towards equality and diversity. You would be surprised with the number of women who forget their own struggle when educating their children.

Please, always remember that in an average career you will work nearly 40 years! Therefore, what is one year of your life devoted to your child? Nothing! You can always come back. Your career will not die with a year off. To the contrary, you shall return a more mature, established, and happy individual, who values her career.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge as a woman leader in your profession?

To continue inspiring the new generations of lawyers. And as I said before, to educate my two sons so that they do not repeat the old ways, but see women as their equals.

Q: How do you achieve and maintain life-work balance?

By working hard, being always present for your family and friends. Taking time off from work to spend time at my farm whenever I can, where I “recharge the batteries” and remember the important things in life. Of course, having a management position helps, but you need to remember how it was before and make sure that younger lawyers are able to develop their potential but still have lives of their own. It is essential to understand the differences between our generation and the younger lawyers; you cannot judge them by the same standards or expect from them the same behavior that you would have expected 20 years before.

Q: What is the best piece of leadership advice you have received?

To believe in one’s capabilities, truly.

Alexandra Montealegre is an international associate in Debevoise’s New York office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.