As a Latino man and a member of the LGBT community, Daniel Hernandez knows marginalized communities.
Born and raised in Florida as the first generation of working-class Cuban immigrants, Hernandez’s upbringing motivated him to eschew a legal career in which he would join a firm and maximize the billable hour. Instead, he always intended to hang his own shingle to help clients who don’t have access to legal services that the top dollar can buy.
Hernandez has been on his own nearly the entirety of his four-year legal career; he founded Next Level Law, which opened its doors on the North Side on Jan. 1. Next Level was born of the dissolution of Walczak Hernandez, which he co-founded with Timothy Walczak.
As of press time, Next Level Law employs Hernandez, two attorneys and one administrative employee, though Hernandez is actively working to add more attorneys.
When Hernandez graduated from UIC-John Marshall Law School, he worked as a contract attorney for a few months while he pulled his business plan together. Part of that plan involves a flat-fee structure, for which the Justice Entrepreneurs Project recently honored him with an Innovation in Legal Service Delivery Award at its awards ceremony last year
Hernandez talks to Chicago Lawyer about his career and how Next Level Law is the natural manifestation of the legal career he has desired since before law school.
Chicago Lawyer: Where did your civic-mindedness first emerge?
Daniel Hernandez: When I went to John Marshall, I knew I wanted to start a law firm in the future. I didn't think I would start it immediately out of law school. But I’ll be honest … I didn't even realize that there was such a huge gap in access to legal services.
And when I did find out about this gap, I want to be there to close it. That was where tension occurred between my law partner and I. I wanted to market to individuals who remind me more of my mom and dad. I feel most accomplished when I know I’m helping a family that looks like me.
CL: What is your goal with Next Level Law?
DH: I really want to grow a lot more in the Latino community. I’ve taken certain steps recently to start marketing more toward that community. I want to hire another associate who speaks Spanish, which you wouldn’t think would be a difficult thing to find in Chicago, but it is. There aren’t a lot of Latinos in the legal profession to begin with, but only half or so of them actually speak Spanish.
CL: Why is the Latino community so important to you?
DH: It’s important on multiple levels. On one level, I think it’s an issue of comfort. While any firm could have a Spanish-speaking staff, that staff can assist in communicating between the client who speaks Spanish and the attorney who does not. I think it’s really important though to fully understand and to truly be able to speak to the client in the language they feel the most comfortable. That goes for all languages.
A lot of my clients come to me and they say they hired an attorney and it was hard to communicate with them. Some of my undocumented clients are also afraid to tell non-Latino, non-Spanish-speaking attorneys things they should know. And I think, why does it have to be this way? You don’t go to your doctor and not be able to talk to them. The community is best served with someone who speaks their native tongue.
CL: What about your work with the LGBT community?
DH: I consider the Latino and the LGBT communities my primary focus buckets. I’ve had individuals come in for consultations, where they’re trying to deal with name-change issues or managing having a baby by surrogacy and people with these closely held religious beliefs and values don’t like dealing with those things.
I’ve had colleagues tell me, ‘You know, I just don’t get [the community.]’ My response is always, you don’t have to get it, but you’re an attorney and you should be able to help them. There are a lot of things I don’t understand either, but I understand enough to say, ‘Hey, this person needs help. I want to help them.’ I would hate for someone to close the door on me because they don’t “get” me. We should all be able to empathize without fully understanding everyone’s problems.
CL: Tell us about your pro bono work.
DH: The bulk of the pro bono work that I do comes from Chicago Volunteer Legal Services. I try to align my practice with the number of pro bono cases that I have; I like to keep a 10% ratio. Sometimes I’m able to really keep that together and sometimes it doesn’t always work out that way, but in the roughly four years that I’ve been practicing, I've never gone one month without a pro bono case on my docket.
CL: How does your pay scale with clients work?
DH: The [Justice Entrepreneurs Project] has really helped me out in terms of determining my pricing structure. I charge a flat monthly to my clients, and I think that that’s brought so much access to justice for clients by doing that small thing.
Hiring a lawyer is never cheap, but my clients know exactly what their lawyer is going to cost every single month, no matter what. Whether I’m working 100 hours on their case that month or just two to three, they know that they’re going to pay the same exact dollar amount. Like, what if a case goes on too long or some crazy thing happens? I started thinking about that ‘what if’ and I said to myself, ‘I can’t control the unknowns. I’m just going to charge people a flat monthly rate.’
CL: How does the current political climate impact your work?
DH: I’ve noticed that people are bolder in asserting that parents are undocumented. Attorneys don’t do this, but other litigants try to use that as leverage in custody matters, and it’s created a lot of fear.
One of my very first pro bono clients was an undocumented woman, and she was worried that if a court order allowed her child to get a passport, the child could travel abroad with their father and if they didn’t return, she couldn’t go looking for the child because she wouldn’t be able to easily return to the United States where her child could rightfully return. I could sense the pain in her fear.
I have a current client with a 6-year-old child whose life he’s been in since she was born. He found out recently the mother of the child wants to move to Texas. She had a plane ticket purchased and everything. We got everything done so she couldn’t just take the child.
The other day, he came to me with a concern the mother might call ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on him because it would fix her problem. How do you console a client about that? It’s very tough because I had to tell him I don’t have a way to counsel that.
CL: Why is this work so important to you personally?
DH: My parents instilled in me from a very young age the importance of helping people. When my parents came to this country as teenagers in the 1970s, they had nothing. But they have very similar stories about being helped by people. My dad remembers being helped by the church, which gave him clothes and temporary housing. Even in my childhood, when we would hear of a family coming from Cuba, it was like immediately, ‘Hey, what clothes do you not want? What toys do you not play with anymore? We have to help them.’
Sure, I have to make a living, but that doesn’t mean that I have to charge someone $400 an hour to do my job. A lot of our clients are victims of domestic violence and they’re going through the survival period and are more needy, less trusting and don’t know what to do. I think by making a good living and still helping people, I can inspire my staff to want to do the same.