The goal and idea of diversity has been getting a lot of attention in our society for decades now but, unfortunately, it gets more lip service than many of us would like. Though we rarely openly admit it, many in our community do not value diversity. Indeed, they feel threatened by it, which is a sad paradox because one of the greatest threats we face is our society’s fear and resistance to diversity and inclusion.
We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Inti Martinez-Alemán, a young Minnesota lawyer originally from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Inti embodies the tremendous strength and promise of diversity and inclusion in our society.
Read the interview, below. See for yourself.
Inti, a third generation lawyer (Honduran trained, U.S. trained, licensed in Minnesota and New York), brings unsurpassed breadth of experience and promise to our community. He has left behind a country that struggles with terrible violence and corruption and he brings hard-earned insights and experience that most of us will never have to encounter. (Incidentally, Inti’s journey is reminiscent of another Minnesota Litigator profile from another part of the world, Rachhana Srey.)
And this profile is timely. Inti notes in our interview that Hispanic National Bar Association, in which he is active, will host (with other hosts) the “Su Negocio” (“Your Business”) program in Minneapolis coming up on November 7.
ML: Tell our readers what is the bread and butter of your legal practice?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: The bread and butter of my legal practice is anything related to assets, businesses and jobs for Latinos. So any Latino or Latina who has been cheated by someone who is more savvy, more knowledgeable, or more of a trickster. So it could be their landlord, it could be their employer, could be a business partner. That’s my bread and butter. It’s pretty broad: civil, business, and employment litigation. If there is something that is an area of law that I don’t feel comfortable with, I either refer it out or co-counsel with someone.
ML: So it sounds like the vast majority of your clients are people rather than businesses. Is that right?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: I’d say about 70 percent are individuals. And then 30 percent are businesses.
ML: Walk us through generally how you process new clients?
Inti: Right away, I ask two things when I get a call from a potential client. Let’s say the caller, José calls… I start, “Tell me the name of the opposing party or someone who… they don’t always know what opposing party means…someone who you have a beef with, you know, a problem with. And then they say, okay, it’s Juan, Juan Gomez….” We run a conflict check. “No problem there,” I’d say, and then, “what kind of case are we talking about?” And then the potential client starts narrating to me, and I generally say, “No, no, José, I just want to know like what area of law is this. Is a civil case related to a home or landlord tenant or is this a business case?” Okay, let’s say it’s a business case and they have a problem with what’s going on with a small business. I generally follow up with: “So I hope you understand that it’s better to talk in person. There are things that I would rather not talk over the phone as soon as you can imagine. And so I would rather meet with you. My first consultation is for one hour and it’s $80 and you can pay over the phone now. Or I can send you a link so you can pay via your phone or your desktop.
ML: And your practice is paperless, you mentioned earlier?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes. I run a paperless law firm and I don’t have a physical file for any of my clients. All of them are in a secure cloud and that’s how it works.
ML: But I assume you get mail? I do. And you scan it and upload it?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes. And it ticks me off to get mail. So for example, when I do get mail I scan it and then use it as scrap paper—or shred it. Eventually, I shred everything that I received in the mail. So that’s how, that’s how I work. I tell opposing counsel and parties that if they want to send me anything, they should send me documents by email or using links to documents.
ML: How long have you been practicing in Minnesota?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Two years. But I was an attorney back home in Honduras. So I started there 10 years ago. 2008. I practiced there for five years. Then I took two years for U.S. law school. One year to prepare for law school. And then two years of practice here.
ML: So you went through two different law schools?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes, I have two law degrees in two different countries, and license in three jurisdictions (Honduras, Minnesota, and New York).
ML: Do you have any practice in Honduras now?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: No, but I do advise people who are trying to invest here in the US from Honduras, or people here in Minnesota who want to invest in or do something in Honduras.
ML: What has been the biggest surprise, going from practicing law in Honduras to civil law here in Minnesota?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Civil versus common law. How much more time it takes to get an answer for a client with the common law. With a civil code based legal system, I could just pull the code out and locate the answer. You know, it doesn’t matter as much what 200 cases have said. I mean, the cases can give you some general idea of how courts are going to rule. But they’re not necessarily binding, with certain limited and strict restrictions.
ML: So is the Honduran legal system faster?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: No, it’s much, much slower. But for other reasons, not related to how law is established. It has more to do with corruption and bureaucracy.
ML: What would you advise someone considering law school today?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: First I would tell them, as I tell my mentees, they need to first do a vocational test or an aptitude test to know if that’s actually their calling — if their gifts and their talents and their strengths are actually aligned with the practice of law, which is very broad, of course. You can have a law degree and not practice law. Or even if you practice law—which is so very variegated—I would tell them that they need to know for sure that that’s actually what they want to do. If they want to do it just for glam, they can find other careers that may be more suited for that, and there they would find fulfillment.
ML: Do you advise of any particular vocational aptitude test?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: I like Myers Briggs’ career test. I also like the Strengthsfinder. It won’t tell you “you must be a doctor”, but it gives you a general sense of or a list of general fields that go well with how you’re wired. Knowing how you’re wired is extremely important because then you’re going to enjoy what you do and you will not work a day in your life.
ML: Are those tests one can get online?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes. You can get them online sometimes free. Sometimes paid. Strengthsfinder starts at $20.
ML: And you mentioned that you have mentees. How many mentees do you currently have? Officially?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: I have two “officially,” but I also have friends who consult with me on a periodic basis. We don’t call each other mentor and mentee but it is similar and I have about half a dozen, and counting.
ML: Are your mentees from any particular institutional law school or college?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: One is from Mitchell Hamline School of Law. And the other is a high-schooler in St Paul.
ML: How did you connect with the high-schooler?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Through a nonprofit called Clues [ed. note: pronounced CLEW-iss], a nonprofit that helps Latinos and with social services and adapting to Minnesota culture and whatnot.
ML: Are there any aspects of Minnesota law or federal law that you’ve come across your practice where you think that that should be changed?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: So many, I don’t know where to start, but one beyond the areas in which I practice: Minnesota should allow undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses. I don’t say this only to be immigrant-friendly, but also from a rule of law perspective. Ensuring that undocumented drivers have to pass a driving test for public safety reasons, and knowing where these people live, when they change their address…a host of reasons.
ML: Does the law on this vary state by state?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: It does.
ML: And do you know what efforts, if any, are underway to have driver’s licenses Minnesota for undocumented people?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yeah, there are. There’s been a push and through the Real ID Act or using the Act as leverage to allow for this. So it’s a political move and thankfully Isaiah, a faith-based nonprofit and also the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. And the Minnesota Council for Latino Affairs. Those three are working together to push this. I believe that the MSBA might consider supporting the effort as well, but I’ve seen nothing in writing yet.
ML: Would you happen to know the numbers of states that allow undocumented people to have driver’s licenses?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Last time I checked there were about 12 states. It’s in the minority and each of these have follow very strict requirements. Some states even have like, a banner on the driver’s license that says “restricted” or “undocumented” or something like that. That’s kind of shameful, right? But that was one of the compromises in order to allow undocumented people to qualify for driver’s licenses.
ML: If you could generalize about your experience about the Minnesota Bar, how would you, how would you generalize about your experience of Minnesota lawyers?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: I think my colleagues are excellent. Very collegial, very civil. I really appreciate it. Having lived in western New York and in Chicago, even though I wasn’t practicing there, I was connected with the legal community. Here, I find attorneys more collegial and civil. But, at the same time, there are times when you want to make a decision, you know, if you’re co-counseling or you’re with a group of co-defendants or co-plaintiffs and you can’t get a straight answer at times because of the Minnesota culture. Very indirect. So it’s like, “Okay, let’s just decide. Let’s be more executive.” That’s kind of hard at times here in Minnesota.
ML: And if you could use this platform to communicate with Minnesota bench, state and federal judges, would you have anything that you would want them to know from your perspective?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: I would like judges to be more connected with their communities and not only when it’s election season because that’s when they come out with the posters and go to the parades and to other fairs, being everybody’s friend. But day to day. I think Minnesota judges should be connected in a volunteer opportunities so that they could be better judges. That way, when we as attorneys come and explain a case or a fact pattern, they can relate to it. Most of them don’t connect with real Minnesotan lives. We have a harder time as litigators trying to explain the realities of people who are at the grassroots, boots on the ground—living day to day life of Minnesota.
ML: So imagine I am a judge. How am I supposed to get more connected with Minnesotans?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Judge Leventhal. I think you should volunteer with Clues for example. Be a mentor to a Latino. You would learn about the predicaments that Latinos have, being employees, being employers, being business owners, being undocumented or documented. So I think that would help you a lot, Judge.
ML: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: That’s very hard because am I rarely plan that far ahead, but I can see myself and still practicing law, probably here in Minnesota. I’d be doing the same kind of areas of law that I’m currently doing by myself, but maybe with a partner or more than one partner. They would be practicing areas that I’m not interested in like family law or criminal law or immigration law cases. Latinas and Latinos come to my law firm looking for representation in those cases. There are already so many attorneys practicing in those areas and, thankfully, I have a good referral list. But If I could keep it in-house, that’d be great, without me having to branch out and doing it myself.
ML: What’s stopping you from having such partners now?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: I’m trying to figure out a good business model. You know, I’m only two years this month into practice in Minnesota, so I’m trying to understand how to run my office on my own and then figure out from there what a good business partner would look like.
ML: You mentioned before the interview is that you might be buying a building?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes, I am now looking at a small office building in St Paul. I’m really interested because I think I would be able to serve my clients better that way. I would have more space for myself and for my clients. I would have more decision-making versus just being a tenant and I think it would be a better long-term investment.
ML: And have you gotten the building thinking of partnering with one or more people? Would it accommodate that?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes it would if I were to do that. Correct. But it’s not a contingency. It’s a relatively small office building. Two floors.
ML: If you could fashion your ideal lawsuit or your ideal client, what would that look like?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: For me, I would like to work with a team of lawyers fighting against a powerful person or a powerful entity who has cheated a client or clients out of something. What type of area of law that would be? I’m very open to that. Maybe in the commercial litigation sense but not unnecessarily. So I could be, you know, for sure, in a group of lawyers. I do see myself doing that on my own but I like the idea of teamwork and I can see that we would be more effective that way.
ML: You are now a solo lawyer.
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Solo by choice. Solo by design. Not because I can’t find someone else to partner with. I’ve been offered five opportunities to partner with people.
ML: When you say “solo,” do you mean you have no administrative assistant? No paralegal? It’s just you?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Until two months ago. That was right. Two months ago I hired three law clerks. They’re law students and these law students work remotely so they are not physically in my office. And having a paperless law firm helps a lot with that.
ML: How many hours do your three law clerks work?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: It varies because sometimes, for certain tasks, I assign by flat fees. I tell them this is what I’m willing to pay for this type of task. There’s a deadline and they finish it. So it would vary. So sometimes it’s 10 hours. Other times it’s 20 hours a month. It is a part-time job.
ML: Who are your heroes? Who inspires you?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: That’s probably the hardest question that people can ask me. Because I have a hard time, condensing everything that I value into one person. So I can give you a set of people I can think of and for different reasons. I really admire Karin Ciano for how committed and hardworking and connected that she is. And Robin Wolpert from the Sapientia law firm. She is someone whom I admire a lot too. I’m still working on that list of hero attorneys.
ML: When you were a kid, who were your heroes?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: My late mother who was an attorney, for sure. She was my heroine and she practiced law as a litigator for 30 plus years in Honduras. And she and three other attorneys whom I can mention, unfortunately are dead. They were my heroes in Honduras as a litigator.
ML: Three lawyers who you respected in Honduras and all have passed away?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes, two from illnesses. And my mother, unfortunately, was assassinated in Honduras.
ML: I’m sorry. That’s terrible.
Inti: Due to her work. We don’t know exactly why she was killed, but we know it was related to her work. I feel fortunate that it was for a good reason, but still, unfortunately that’s what happened to my mother. At least it gives me peace that she was on the right track.
ML: How old was she?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: She was 56.
ML: This was in Tegucigalpa?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes.
ML: Is your father still around?
Inti Martinez-Alemán He’s in Honduras.
ML: As a solo, a litigator, there’s a lot of stress. You have no backstop. You have no net underneath the high wire act. What keeps you up at night?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: So literally nothing. Figuratively, I am always asking myself, how can I become a better person in a broad sense of the word. And something that informs my decision on many things day to day is my faith, my Christian faith. And, and I don’t only mean it in a religious sense of “do’s and don’ts,” but actually how can I model the life of Jesus Christ on this earth as a lawyer, as a husband, as a son, as a brother, as a friend, etc.? And how can I model that? And not only for religious reasons, because I don’t view it that way, but more out of a commitment or love for humanity and love for God.
ML: Are you a member of a local congregation?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes. I attend Eagle Brook Church, which happens to be the largest church in Minnesota. And I understand that the people either love that church or hate it. Obviously, I’m okay with it.
ML: Where is it?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: It actually has seven campuses. So it’s all over the metro area. The main location, where the lead pastor is, is in Lino Lakes. But I go to White Bear Lake.
ML: You mentioned some differences between practicing law in Honduras and Minnesota. One thing you mentioned was Honduras’ civil code rather than our common law tradition. Also, you said there was a lot more corruption in Honduras?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes, corruption. And violence is ongoing. About 180 plus of my colleagues have been have been assassinated since 2004. We’re out there uncovering, discovering stuff, defending people, opening our mouths, you know, being advocates as we should. And so we are that pebble in other people’s shoes. So we are a stumbling block for corrupt people.
ML: Your dad is still in Honduras and your mom was assassinated there? What does he do? Is he safe?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: He’s an economist. He works for the Swiss government in Honduras. So he works for a government agency from Switzerland that helps sustainable development in Honduras. And, yes, he’s generally safe. But he could be a victim of common crime, not as target.
ML: Would you describe Honduras as having high crime in general relative to Minnesota?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes. Extremely high. Up until 2016, Honduras was the murder capital of the world. It had 92 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. In the U.S., it’s 4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
ML: Is there any part of your life and Tegucigalpa that you miss?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Yes, I miss hills. Like the idea of having hills. It’s very pleasant to see, to walk, to drive, and to live among hills. Also, I liked the social life in Honduras. I really like going out. It’s more casual, less structured than here and more intense, I think.
ML: Can you elaborate on the cultural differences?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: Social life, not only with your family and your close friends at home, or at someone’s home, but also nightlife, for example, you want to go out and party… it’s more relaxed. You’re there to enjoy, while I feel that here — and this is more of a cultural thing — here it’s like the party starts at eight and ends at 12. It’s very like structured like it’s a work meeting versus “just let the night take you….” That’s something I do miss for sure.
In Honduras, people work to live while, in the US, people live to work, generally. Obviously, not everybody fits neatly into those categories. But, generally, in Honduras you work in order to finance your social life, your lifestyle, and have family over, invite friends over. To have a social life, you know? And so you work to finance that. Well, here I feel people are more obsessed with work and, on the side, to have a family life.
Even considering the buzzwords, “work-life balance.” What I hear a lot, even in the most progressive work life balance organizations, is, “In order to be more effective at work, you need to rest a little, you know, take a break.” In Honduras, the conversation would be the opposite. In order to be able to enjoy life, your family, and your social network and to finance all of that, you should work this way, or more efficient in this way.
And going back to the question about practicing law and the practice of law in Honduras versus here, I feel that, in Honduras, laws are more strict but there is very very lax enforcement. Here in the U.S., I feel laws are more flexible with very strict enforcement. . In Honduras, a law may have two rules on a subject, but no exceptions whatsoever. In the US, there might be one rule on a topic, but seven exceptions. I like that about the U.S. because it takes a lot into consideration — people’s background, who they are, there can be variances and waivers. The concept of waiver is unfathomable in Honduras. Unthinkable. It is like, “Nope, this is what the law says and that’s it. (But if you want to pay me for this or that we can work something, I can give you a deal…”) So very, very lax enforcement, unless you’re willing to bribe a government official.
ML: If someone wanted to learn more about Honduras, are there particular books you would recommend or movies or artists?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: A good starter would be Cabbages and Kings by O. Henry. That’s where the term “banana republic” comes from, referring to O. Henry’s six months living in Honduras. It’s a novel. It’s in english and it’s inspired by his six months living in Honduras in 1904. But Honduras has changed very little since colonial times. Honduras is stuck in time, which brings me to a second book called, and I’ll just say it in spanish, “Honduras Estampa de la Espera,” by Ramon Oqueli. The title means “Honduras, The Stamp of Waiting,” basically saying that we’re just waiting for something to happen, you know, something miraculous or some divine person to come and save us from corrupt officials. For movies, I would recommend three. “Morazan,” which talks about the colonial times of Honduras, which brings me to a second movie called “Cipotes.” It’s more on 20th century Honduras. And the third is “La Limpia, La Chancha, y La Santa Maria,” which is a play on words on la Nina, la Pinta, and the Santa Maria. It’s more about 21st century in Honduras. You can see even in those three movies how similar the society is. Very little has changed.
“Morazan” is a year or two old, but it’s in reference to the independence era of Honduras, colonial independence. And “Cipotes,” the same… Like two to three years old, but it’s in reference to mid 20th century Honduras. And same with “La Limpia, La Chancha, y La Santa Maria.” It is very recent, but it’s in reference 21st century.
ML: At one time in our conversation before the interview, you mentioned that the latino community here in Minnesota is split up, not just based on countries of origin but also on socioeconomic class and therefore, tell me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is there’s no sort of unified voice of this community because it’s broken up and all of these different ways. Is that fair to say?
Inti Martinez-Alemán: That is fair to say and also a language proficiency — how good you are in English or Spanish puts you in a different category. And it’s very interesting because about five to 10 percent of latinos in Minnesota are professionals. About 20 to 25 business owners and then 65 to 75 percent are working class, that work for somebody in factories, meat packing companies, agriculture, construction, cleaning companies and so on. So it’s very difficult for these different groups to relate. There’s a huge overlap because you could be an accountant working for yourself, a business owner, but also working part time, for someone else or being a professional, working for yourself and being a business owner. So there’s some overlap, but it is an issue where you are in the food chain so to speak. And if you’re an immigrant who has legal, lawful status here in the U.S. or not, it puts you in a different category. I know several millionaire undocumented immigrants who own businesses here in Minnesota. I have represented one or two. They won’t go to public events where other people who are not as wealthy go, but they’re us citizens or residents.
Right now I’m hosting or organizing a couple of events for different groups for my law firm or other bar association and for example, one called “Su Negocio,” “Your Business,” is an event that’s going to be hosted on November 7th and it’s for business owners. One of the discussions we’re having is, should we have Interpreters are not? The leader is of latino heritage but he doesn’t speak any spanish and so he was having a hard time understanding why it’s important to have an interpreter. He works in a major law firm and he might not have any latino clients who are average latinos here in Minnesota. We had to explain to him how important it was to hire interpreters. Those of us who are solo or small firm lawyers, who speak spanish natively and who serve the latino population, we understood why. It’s all about being willing to sit down and educate with respect, learning how to bridge those gaps.
ML: Thank you very much.
[Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles of Minnesota litigators: Brent Primus, a 40+ year Minnesota litigator with decades of experience in cargo and transportation law, Emily McNee, employer-side employment litigator, Anna Voss, Civil Chief of the United States Attorney’s Office, Kenneth U. Udoibok, fighting for justice from Nigeria to Minnesota and beyond, Bill Tilton, 40 year St. Paul civil rights lawyer, Kristine Kubes, advisor and litigator for construction professionals, Rachhana Srey, plaintiff’s side wage-and-hour litigator, Eric Nilsson, banking/lending litigation, Roshan Rajkumar, products liability defense, Jerry Alcazar, products liability defense, Liz Kramer, Arbitration Maven/Author of Arbitration Nation, Tim Nolan, Lawyer/poet, Laurie Vasicheck, 25 year veteran of the Minneapolis office of the EEOC, Jake Holdreith, an IP litigator for “drug dealers” (better known as pharmaceutical companies), Pam VanderWiel, lawyer for Minnesota municipalities, Bill Dossett, Executive Director of Minnesota’s Nice Ride bike-sharing program, Christina Snow, lender/servicer real estate and foreclosure lawyer, Clayton Halunen, plaintiffs’ employment lawyer, consumer rights lawyer, Stephen L. Smith, straddling a civil and a criminal litigation practice (and later appointed to the Ramsey County District Court bench), Kevin Dunlevy, Minnesota real property authority, Vildan Teske, consumer rights class action litigation and service members class actions, Jim Behrenbrinker, civil rights/excessive force cases, Eric Cooperstein, “ethics maven“, Mike Flom, Gray Plant’s General Counsel, Phil Gainsley, veteran solo civil litigator, John Halpern, collections, Elliot Olsen, foodborne illness litigation, Dave Potter, railroad industry litigator, Katherine Mackinnon, ERISA plaintiff’s lawyer, Kristine Boylan, international IP/Complex Litigation lawyer,Karin Ciano, free-lance “federal sherpa,” Jerry Alcazar, products liability defense.] [For Minnesota Litigator profiles of judges, see: Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey J. Keyes, Hennepin County Judge SusanRobiner, Retired U.S. District Court Chief Judge James M. Rosenbaum (D. Minn.), Hennepin County Chief Judge Peter Cahill, Hennepin County Judge Thomas Fraser.]