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Md. Hispanic Bar Association taking stock at 20

Mayda Colón Tsaknis, founder of the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association 20 years ago, said she is not surprised by its growth and proudly recited a list of the association’s accomplishments. But thinking about the significance of the milestone left her searching for the right words.

“I was able to plant a seed, and the seed has grown into a tree,” she said after some thought. “The tree hasn’t grown into a big tree yet, but it’s getting there.”

Tsaknis, a solo practitioner, began the association by forming a corporation and inviting a small group of Hispanic lawyers she knew to her Rockville office. On Thursday night, around 200 people will attend the association’s annual gala in Greenbelt, including the MHBA’s next generation of leaders.

“We have so many young attorneys, it makes me happy to see them want to continue to strive for our goals,” Tsaknis said.

While the association’s advocacy on behalf of Maryland’s Hispanic community has never wavered, its focus has changed to confront new challenges of a growing community. In its early years, the association held open houses in courthouses with mock trials and presentations on different areas of law to familiarize the community with the judiciary, along with pro bono legal and social-services fairs held after Spanish-language Mass.

Now, by contrast, the organization testifies before the General Assembly on immigration issues and last year endorsed several judicial nominees for the first time, after years of vetting applicants.

“It was important to show we wanted to see diversity on the bench,” said Jessica Chipoco, the association’s immediate past president.

Chipoco started attending MHBA board meetings a decade ago after graduating from law school, wanting to meet fellow Latino lawyers, and has been involved ever since.

“I’ve found a ready-made family of attorneys who are ready to help and have helped me grow,” said Chipoco, an attorney with GPN Title Inc. in Rockville.

The association has between 40 and 60 paid members and around 200 people on its mailing list. Membership used to be concentrated in Montgomery County but is growing across the state, along with the Latino population.

“You see more Latino attorneys wanting to get involved,” said Daniel V. Renart, the association’s current president. “It’s a form of public service.”

That includes serving as liaisons to the non-Spanish speaking population. The group was instrumental in ensuring that courtroom interpreters meet standard requirements, and that immigrants who plead guilty in court are told the plea can affect their immigration status.

“There’s a misconception that if someone doesn’t speak English, they are undocumented,” said Renart, an associate with Reinstein, Glackin, Patterson & Herriott LLC in Bowie. “It’s not always the case.”

Renart, like Chipoco, is a graduate of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Leadership Academy for young lawyers. The last four presidents of the MHBA, in fact, have passed through the Leadership Academy.

The MHBA is also a supporter of the Summer Scholars Pipeline Program, a program run by the Bar Association of Montgomery County to place minority law school students as interns at area law firms.

“We don’t have a large membership but I think we have a large impact,” said Renart.

Both Renart and Tsaknis said they want to continue to recruit new members to the association. Tsaknis would also like to add at least a part-time staffer to take some of the workload off members.

For the founder, however, one of the best parts of the organization remains the same after 20 years.

“When I see people have grown into very reliable, very professional lawyers that young Hispanics and other minorities can look up to, my heart bursts with pride,” Tsaknis said.