Narrowing the Gap
UC Davis Law Alumnus Rodrigo Guevara quits corporate law to stand up for workers’ rights
by Laura Pizzo
Rodrigo Guevara J.D. ’09 was happily working as a corporate attorney, representing large companies and public agencies in employment litigation, when his passion for workers’ rights began drawing him in a very different direction. Now, he is a founder and managing partner of Abogato, LLP, a law firm that empowers low-wage workers in underserved communities in California.
Guevara’s change of heart came when he was the president of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association from 2014 to 2015. In this role, he helped organize two mayoral debates and a district attorney debate, focusing exclusively on issues important to the Latino/a community. Each of the debates attracted about 350 audience members and a lot of media coverage, making it quickly apparent to Guevara that there was a great need in the community for more advocacy.
“Those events inspired me to make a difference because they were really the only mayoral debates in the whole city that focused on issues affecting Latinos and other underserved communities,” said Guevara, who also served in a leadership role of the La Raza Law Student Association when he was attending law school at UC Davis. “None of the other debates focused on social justice issues. So I realized there weren’t many voices out there for working class or low-wage workers.”
More than a law firm
A 2015 study found that 77% of low-wage workers in San Diego are not getting fully paid and part of the reason is that workers are fearful of enforcing their rights to payment. In July 2015, Guevara founded Abogato – the educational arm of what became a law firm by the same name a year later – with the goal of empowering workers to fight for their rights.
In Abogato’s early form, Guevara would address this issue by educating clients about their employment rights through videos and other online resources. If his clients wanted to pursue litigation, he would connect them to outside attorneys in his professional network.
But there was a significant gap between the number of workers seeking legal counsel and the number of attorneys able to help.
“About 40 percent of Californians are of Latino heritage, many of which are low-wage workers, and only about 4 percent of the State Bar are of that same demographic and fewer speak Spanish,” said Guevara, a native Spanish speaker. “I’m not saying that only Latino attorneys should represent Latinos, but there are cultural sensitivities and language barriers, and there just aren’t enough attorneys to serve the need. This gap inspired me and my law partner Rafael Hurtado – who is also a worker’s rights advocate – to turn Abogato into a law firm.”
Now, the tables have turned, and other attorneys have referred more than a dozen Spanish-speaking clients to Abogato.
Aggie roots in social justice
Guevara said he is proud to be an alumnus of UC Davis and the School of Law, also known as King Hall (in reference to the law school’s home in Martin Luther King Jr. Hall).
“Being from Southern California, I really didn’t know what to expect of UC Davis when I arrived. But what I found was that UC Davis, the City of Davis, and the larger community of California interweave quite beautifully, and that sense of community really amplifies your experience as a student, whether you’re there for your undergraduate or graduate education,” said Guevara, who has made donations to support King Hall and the La Raza Law Student Association. “It helps you build warm social groups and feel comfortable pursuing your passions.”
As a student, Guevara connected strongly with other students in the La Raza Law Student Association, as well as through other networks at UC Davis. He felt inspired to be a part of a law school that adamantly pursues social justice, diversity and advocacy. He was also proud that UC Davis is on track to become a designated Hispanic Service Institute (HSI) – in which at least 25 percent of the undergraduate student body must be Hispanic – by fall 2018.
“Dean Johnson became dean my last year at King Hall, and he was hugely supportive of the La Raza law students and is a national leader in Latino issues, especially immigration issues,” he said. “He and other faculty do a tremendous job fostering Latino students while they’re in law school and also work tirelessly on outreach to undergraduate students, helping to encourage Latino students to consider law school.”
He added, “UC Davis is probably unrivaled in the state for outreach to Latino students; it’s head and shoulders above other universities in terms of its commitment to diversity.”