Interview with Amanda I. Hernandez: SACDLA’S 2019 Young Lawyer of the Year

Where were you born?

Nogales, Arizona.

Where did you grow up?

I lived in Rio Rico, Arizona, near Nogales, until I was around nine or ten years old. After that, my family and I moved to a small town called Ricardo right outside of Kingsville in south Texas. I lived there until I graduated high school.

What was your childhood and adolescence like? 

I had an amazing childhood. Both my parents worked very hard to make sure my siblings and I were provided for and loved. They always stressed the importance of education and told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, as long as I put my mind to it.

I loved growing up in Arizona. Our house was in the mountains. Sometimes it would snow in the Winter, and I remember it like our own Winter Wonderland. In school, they were really big on culture and history. My teachers taught me about Native American tribes and folktales, and always made learning fun. When I was in elementary school, the school I attended was next door to the junior high school where my older sister went to school and where my mom was a vice principal. I would walk over after class and go help the basketball coach in the gym or peek in on my sister’s class. I have really great memories growing up there.

I was sad when I found out we were moving to Texas. It was really hard to imagine leaving my friends, our house, and my favorite pet – my horse Midnight. My dad was a border-patrol agent, though, and he had been re-stationed to South Texas, where both he and my mom are from.

After a while, Texas became home. My parents both grew up in the valley and most of their families still lived in Texas, so it was nice to be closer to family. I had a hard time fitting in when I first moved here, but pretty soon I bonded with other girls over N’Sync and sports.

I was a total dork in middle school, but I defiantly did NOT care that I was not cool. One thing I did like about Texas was having neighbors. I remember finally being able to ride bikes with other kids that lived nearby, like I would see in the movies. My best friend growing up, Kristin, lived down the street and we lived in our own little world. There was no internet for us back then so we played outside, rode bikes, spied on neighbors, went to Blockbuster to rent movies, and just had good innocent fun. We would even write scripts for and film movies about spies or mystery (staring us, some neighbors, and my siblings, of course).

In high school I discovered makeup and boys, but I stayed out of trouble for the most part. I was on the tennis team, active in FFA and 4H, and even hosted my own talk show for a local channel, “Kingsville, Let’s Talk.” It was awesome.

Who were your biggest influences growing up?

The first one that comes to mind is definitely my older sister, Nyssa. She is a few years older than me, but I’ve always felt like we’re the same age. In Arizona, it was mostly just us growing up because, like I mentioned, we didn’t have many neighbors. She was (and  still is) my best friend.

All of my siblings and I are very close, but Nyssa had to deal with me in a special way. I followed her around and copied her like no other. I always wanted to be just like her and do everything she did. I was so annoying. Most of the time I wanted to be the center of attention, but she never cared. She just let me, always making me feel like her equal. I even went to some of her school dances and was in some of her junior-high plays. She’s still a role model for me. I’m forever grateful.

My parents were (and are) also huge influences in my life. They always led by example and showed me what it means to be a good person. My dad is by far the smartest and most hard-working man I’ve ever met, and my mom made having a career while managing a family of six look easy. I joke that I was in school before I was even born, because my mom was finishing her Master’s Degree and working full-time when she was pregnant with me. I remember both my parents always working full-time, but always making time for us and their marriage. My dad would sometimes work all night and still wake up to spend time with his family, even if it was just for a few hours before he went back to work again. Both my parents instilled in me the value of hard work, education, and family.

Lastly, the Olsen twins. I was obsessed with their movies and Full House. I look up to them less these days.

Did you always know you wanted to attend law school and become an attorney? Why?

Yes and no. In high school, I talked about it, but mostly only because people always told me things like “you love to argue – you should be a lawyer.” I could see myself moving to a big city and doing it, but I had my reservations.

At UTSA, I still had the idea in the back of my head, but I definitely was not sure what career path I would end up choosing. I was majoring in international business and working multiple jobs while attending school full-time. As a senior, I was working part-time as a waitress, Brand Ambassador, and bartender, and still attending school full-time. At that point, I couldn’t imagine graduating only to go back to school. I felt ready to get into the real world and find a career. I figured I would get an entry level marketing job at a big company and work my way up from there.

What made you change your mind?

After I graduated, I started interviewing for all sorts of entry-level positions. The more I interviewed, the more I realized I wasn’t done learning. I actually did miss school. I didn’t hate the idea of the positions I was interviewing for, but I knew I wasn’t motivated by them. I didn’t feel any sort of passion. I had worked so many jobs my whole life that I knew deep down that I needed a career I could be passionate about.

I decided to apply for a job in the legal field so that I could see if being a lawyer could bring me that passion. After applying at multiple places, I finally found work as an assistant for a lawyer who had just started his own practice. After working for him for a few months, I decided that if he could do it, so could I. I began studying for my LSATs and within a year, I was accepted into St. Mary’s University School of Law.

Did you receive any help in applying to law school?

No, I’m the first lawyer in my family, and I didn’t really have anyone close to my family who practiced law. I remember researching law schools in Texas and reading about their application process. After that, I bought a used book on Amazon called “LSAT for Dummies” (seriously, I did) and studied that. I took a bunch of practice tests, studied, and finally signed up to take it. I applied online to most of the law schools in Texas in hopes of getting into one.

What was law school like for you?

I’ll never forget orientation day. When we got a speech from (then) Dean Cantu, he talked to us about the importance of the journey we were about to embark on. He told us how important lawyers in America are and how we should be honored to be on our way to the profession. I felt so empowered in that moment. It was the first time it hit me that this was something I could do. I felt like God was telling me I was in the right place at the right time, and that was a rare feeling.

Looking back on law school is interesting. It was really great for the most part, and I met some people who significantly impacted my life forever. It was really stressful at times, but also fun. It was challenging, but gratifying. It took a tremendous amount of patience and work. It was hard, but easier than working a job I didn’t want. It was different than college, but similar in ways. I definitely grew as a person from the time I started to the time I left. It was an unforgettable experience.

What advice would you give to someone who is about to embark on their first year of law school?

I would say that law school, like life, is about balance. You have to give it your all and you have to take it very seriously, but you can’t let yourself stress too hard. Take the experience all in, the bad and the good. Try and enjoy it. There will be times you want to quit and there will be times you feel like it’s impossible, but that’s how being a lawyer sometimes is, too. You’ll get through it. You have to believe in yourself, truly give it your all, and remember to take care of your emotional and physical health. Have some fun, make friends, and read for your classes. Don’t lose yourself in stress. Ask for help if you need it. Study hard. Eat well and exercise when you can, but don’t hate yourself when you can’t. Don’t compare yourself to other students, don’t worry about what you may not be doing. Just worry about doing your personal best and try to get experience in a field you think you may want to pursue.

Which year of law school do you consider your most difficult and why?

The first year, because in law school you have no way of knowing how you are doing in your classes (grade-wise). I was used to having classes with multiple assignments and tests and knowing where I stood in the class. In law school, you have no assignments, usually no other tests besides finals. You don’t know how you are doing compared to everyone else because you have no way to gauge it. I don’t like uncertainty, so it was really hard for me to adjust to just studying and hoping I was retaining the information I had to be. On top of that, everyone had the sense that the school is trying to weed you out in your first year, so there is this pressure to do better than everyone so that you won’t fail out. It was my most stressful year.

What kind of organizations or activities were you involved in in law school?

During my second year of law school, I was on the external advocacy mock trial team. I absolutely loved it. That is actually how I decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer. The thrill mock trial gave me was like no other. I had no problem with public speaking, but this was the first time I was in a situation where I wouldn’t be able to practice my words. The unpredictability of what can happen is exciting and nerve racking. I was really drawn to it.

My third year, I served as Vice President of the St. Mary’s Criminal Law Association. I chose to not do mock trial because I had received a law clerk position with a criminal defense firm and knew I could not devote the necessary time and effort to both positions.

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Did you ever feel like you weren’t going to make it to graduation?

There were definitely sometimes where I wanted to cry because I felt like it was too much work or that I wasn’t retaining enough information, but I never let myself believe I’d actually fail. I always told myself I could push through it. If I let myself think I’ll fail, I might actually fail, so I didn’t let that become an option.

What or who helped you push through?

I’ve always had a strong support system. I have a strong faith, so sometimes it was prayer. Other times it was just leaning on family and friends for support. What was probably most helpful was talking to the friends I made in law school who were in the same situation. It was nice to have friends like Ally and Jessie who I could both study and vent with. We helped push and encourage each other when one was down or feeling like they wouldn’t make it. It was awesome to have that push when I needed it. I felt like we were a team, not on our own.

What year did you graduate from law school?

2016.

What kind of law do you practice?

I am proud to practice criminal defense.

How did you decide on that area of law?

During my second year of law school, Ally, one of my best friends, was a total go-getter. Long story short, she got a sought-out summer internship with prominent criminal defense firm here in San Antonio. Shortly after, she got engaged to her now-husband, Joe, and decided she needed to intern somewhere in Chicago, where she would be moving. Anyway, Ally didn’t want to let the firm down and told me that she really wanted me to consider taking her place. I hadn’t really thought about it, but she got me an interview and I received a clerkship.

Working there really did change the course of my life. I saw firsthand how our criminal justice system works and the people that it affects. I saw how it can be flawed and how innocent people are still being convicted of horrible crimes every day. I learned how to work a criminal case from the ground up and realized that this was the best way for me to help people in my community. I saw that criminal cases are sometimes unfair fights and it made me want to dedicate my life to helping those facing some of the worst times of their lives.

What is your current position and how did you obtain it?

I am the Associate Attorney at the Flanary Law Firm, PLLC, through my own company, the Law Office of Amanda I. Hernandez. When I clerked at Goldstein, I primarily worked for Donald H. Flanary, III, who at the time was an associate at that firm. In November of 2016, the month I received my law license, he started the Flanary Law Firm, PLLC, and asked me to become the first associate.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

It depends on the day. Right now, I’m in the process of hiring a secretary for our firm, so it’s been just my boss and I for a few months. I basically do everything from representing clients in jury trials and hearings to filing motions and answering phones. At least two to three times a week I’ll spend my entire morning at the courthouse representing clients and the rest of the day in my office catching up. Some days I’m relaxed on my computer all day, others I’m in court in various counties across the state.

In three words, can you describe what it is like to be a young, female attorney starting her career in the legal field?

Amazing, challenging, and humbling.

Have you experienced any situations where you were given a difficult time or underestimated in some capacity because of your age or gender? 

Oh, so many times. I do look young for my age and I am a female in a very highly male-dominated field, so yes. What was surprising, though, is that the attitude comes from females more often than it comes from males. Sometimes women are harder on other women.

I often get mistaken for my boss’s assistant or secretary, even in court. Just recently I was in a felony court for a client. I asked to approach the judge and he gave me permission. I started to tell him why I was there, how my client needed a bond reduction, etc. As I was talking, he cut me off and asked, “Are you an attorney?” Although I have gotten that question a lot, it was more surprising to get it in open court when it should be obvious.

Anyway, my mom always taught me that the best way to handle these situations is to kill everyone with kindness. So I answered with a smile, “Yes, Judge,” and kept talking. When I finished, he said he assumed I was my boss’s assistant.

I also seem to get a hard time from some of the female staff around the courthouse. They’ll give me a hard time about a simple request that they don’t question when an older male asks them. But again, I kill them with kindness. Some of them eventually break and are nicer to me, probably out of guilt.

A lot of the time I am dismissed by male prosecutors who will only look at my boss when we’re both on a case. Stuff like that is just common.

Another time, a female judge refused to sign a standard order for me, insisting it was outdated and that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I tried to politely let her know that it was still a standing order in effect in her Court. She dismissed me and asked that I return only with the correct document. My male boss approached her later that day with the exact same motion and she signed it without hesitation.

Many people have a desire to apply to and attend law school or other post-graduate programs, but are concerned with the debt they will likely accrue in doing so. What would you say to those people?

I would say don’t let that be your reason for not going. Everyone has debt. At least this debt is for something invaluable. I still have a lot of student loans to pay off and it seems unfair, but it doesn’t really affect my everyday life. I have enough to get by and make payments and I feel like I’m doing a job I love and helping people every day, so it’s worth it.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I enjoy feeling like I’m fighting for the right side and helping people in need. When people are facing criminal charges, it is scary and horrible for them and sometimes their entire families. I enjoy feeling like an advocate and fighting for people who can’t fight for themselves. Especially when the client is truly innocent, there’s no greater feeling than helping them move on with their lives.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Not to give up, no matter how wild the ride. Things sometimes seem worse than they are, you’ll be okay, just keep your head on straight. Don’t worry so much about doing things right, just do the right things.

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