Insight into Hispanic culture helps in practice


Rhoades McKee attorney Juanita Bocanegra worked two jobs and raised a family while getting her law degree at Cooley.

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

When Juanita Bocanegra was in kindergarten, having moved to the United States from her birthplace of Mexico only five years before, she told the world she wanted to be an attorney.
In later years, she recognized that, through all the intervening life changes, her dream was still the same. Despite an array of challenges ranged against her, she embarked on realizing it.
The law firm Rhoades McKee has been a benefactor of all Bocanegra’s hard work and expertise, because in hiring her, the law firm gained someone who not only speaks Spanish, but also has insight into Hispanic culture.
It is a decided advantage in the Grand Rapids area where the Hispanic population has nearly doubled. In 2006 it was reported that 13 percent of Grand Rapids’ population is Hispanic.
Currently practicing broadly across the areas of general civil litigation, commercial law and business assistance, employment law, probate and estate planning, and family law, Bocanegra emphasizes that it is not only her insight into the culture that helps some clients relate to her.
“People often feel comfortable with me because I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” she says. “I’m able to better understand a lot of circumstances they face, a lot of the problems with growing businesses.”
Bocanegra comes from a family of migrant workers who started out in Mexico, and neither of her parents attained an education beyond elementary school. She moved around a fair amount in her childhood, living in Texas for many years, finally coming to Michigan in 1983 with her family as her father, a U.S. citizen, sought employment opportunities here.
Though she attended Grand Valley State University, receiving her degree in international relations with a minor in Spanish and a focus on legal studies, there was a gap before she attended law school.
She had married in her junior year at GVSU, and started a family shortly thereafter. She had also started working at Old Kent Bank, which she continued to do after obtaining a legal assistant job at a Holland law firm.
One of the primary reasons she hesitated before attending law school was her sense that she was probably going to move back to Texas. Her parents and her in-laws both lived there, but it gradually dawned on both her and her husband, who works at Herman Miller, that Michigan was the place for them.
Still, Bocanegra says with all that was going on in her life, even commuting to Lansing to continue her education sounded like an insurmountable barrier. Her mind was changed when Thomas M. Cooley Law School opened its Grand Rapids campus, where she could attend on weekends, even though that did entail some driving to the Lansing Cooley campus until Grand Rapids received accreditation.
When she started, her daughter was only a year-and-a-half old, and she did not give up either of her jobs.
That determination resulted in her 2008 graduation, as well as winning the school’s 2007 Mock Trial Competition and being named Top Litigator.
Rhoades McKee requires that its starting attorneys gain experience in a variety of specializations for the first two years, for which Bocanegra is grateful.
“Rhoades McKee doesn’t want people practicing in an area they’re not enjoying or not good at,” she comments. “You feel like you’re on a constant learning curve; it can be very enriching and rewarding, and very stressful, all at the same time.”
Hired in 2009, she has not yet determined where she will fit best, though she says it will almost certainly be as a litigator in whatever practice area.
Bocanegra says, “Our goal is to have clients in the best hands possible,and we have attorneys with a lot of expertise here at Rhoades McKee. If they need my help, I’ll be brought in to help, not just with the language barriers, but with the litigation itself and make clients feel more comfortable.”
She is glad that she has been able to assist in the area of encouraging new small businesses and the growth of existing ones.
Bocanegra has a lot of empathy for Hispanic small business owners. She says Spanish-speaking people even more than the average Michiganian benefit from assistance wending their way through business start-up regulations. There are more than one million Hispanic-owned businesses in Michigan, serviced in this area by a separate, strong West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, of which Bocanegra is a member.
“There are a lot of small mom and pop stores that are not always abiding by all the standards — because you don’t know what you don’t know.” she observes. “They need help with finding out what permits they need and how the paper work needs to be run.”
Bocanegra also belongs to the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan and the Multicultural Professionals Association, and now serves on the board of the Community Foundation for Holland-Zeeland. She lives in Zeeland; her daughters are now 8 and 15.


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