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Collaborating for a Cause

Personal experiences spur first generation graduates, millennial scholars, and best friends to study the legal services available to Southern Nevada's Hispanic community.
Research  |  Feb 24, 2014  |  By Shane Bevell
The friendship between statistician Sean Najera and lawyer Edgar Flores (in jacket) has evolved from high school buddies to research collaborators. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Photo Services)

UNLV alums Edgar Flores and Sean Najera have been best friends since high school, paling around as buddies do, but recently have found their time together spent on more serious matters.

They paired to work on a study concerning the local Latino community. The result, "Legal Service Awareness of the Latino Population in Southern Nevada," was published in the Texas Hispanic Journal of Law & Policy in spring 2013.

One aspect of the study was to determine how informed the Latino community is of free or inexpensive legal services that are available. Another aspect was to see why Latinos use non-attorneys to resolve their legal issues and what sources of information they turn to when seeking legal services.

A Personal Interest

For Flores, the interest in this particular subject is personal. He remembers clearly an incident that occurred when he was just 7. A thunderous pounding on the front door shook the walls of his family's small apartment, shattering a family portrait. His mother yelled, "Edgar!" Knowing what was next, he ran out of the door-less bedroom into the living room. The landlord looked straight into the eyes of a child too young to comprehend contracts, but old enough to understand the reality of the situation. "Tell your parents you can no longer stay here," the landlord commanded.

A week prior, Flores' father had asked if he could pay the rent late. The verbal agreement with the landlord promised the family a two-week extension. But his father's faded signature on an old coffee-stained contract said something different. By 4 p.m., they were evicted.

"My parents often spoke of the meaning of being voiceless, and by 7 I understood it completely," Flores said. "At that age very few things were clear to me, but I was certain of one thing - I would join a profession that gave me the necessary tools to defend my family.

"Growing up in a home where my parents did not speak English made me the delivery boy of bad news to my family as I was the unofficial translator to every unjust, corrupt, and misleading document presented to them," he said.

Led to Law

That profession through which he could help his family turned out to be law. A first-generation college student, Flores came to UNLV on the Millennium Scholarship and received a bachelor's degree in English in 2009 before graduating from the William S. Boyd School of Law in 2012. He now is a local attorney practicing immigration law.

"I graduated from Boyd Law School and in the classroom it was my grandmother's eyes roaming the room, finally seeing why my parents left their home country; it was my father's ears finally listening to how the law works to defend his family; it was my mother's maid uniform finally sitting down for the first time to take a break; and it is my grandfather's humility reminding me of all that was sacrificed for me to be in that classroom," he said.

When Flores decided to embark on the study about how local Latinos access legal resources, he knew exactly who to turn to with help on the statistical aspects -- Najera, his friend from both UNLV and Silverado High School, where the two had been involved in the high school's Student Organization of Latinos.

Also a first-generation college student and Millennium Scholar, Najera had always considered math to be his best subject, but didn't think that skill would parlay into a successful career. So he tried other disciplines such as electrical engineering, pre-dental, and education.

Following a Passion

With the help of a faculty mentor, after three years of studying biology and electrical engineering, he rediscovered his true passion -- mathematics.

"Once I focused on what I wanted to study rather than on my career goals, I became more involved in my classes and became a better student," Najera said. "It was the best decision I ever made."

After earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 2010 from UNLV, Najera taught Spanish at a private school in California for one year. Realizing that teaching was not for him and admitting that crunching numbers was his life's calling, he returned to UNLV to pursue a master's degree in statistics. He graduated in December and now works as a data analyst for Caesars Entertainment.

Najera's prowess at statistics made him the natural choice when Flores was seeking someone with strong math skills to work with him on the legal study.

"Sean has an appreciation for statistics like no one else I know," Flores said. "More importantly, the numbers would mean nothing without a person who was able to interpret them and explain what they mean.

"I also knew this endeavor would require more than just someone who understood math," Flores said. "It required someone who also was passionate enough to donate many hours to provide useful data for our community."

About the Study

One goal of the study was to determine why Latinos use non-attorneys to resolve their legal issues and what sources of information they turn to when seeking legal services. The Latino community frequently uses notarios p?blicos (notaries public) in lieu of attorneys for legal advice. This is because notarios p?blicos are considered licensed attorneys in many Latin countries.

Flores said this research was important to him because members of the Latino community frequently are victims of the unauthorized practice of law. It was after reading other studies that he became interested in understanding what role the notary publics play in the Latino community, why the Latino community is so vulnerable to notary publics, and if there is a correlation between the Latino community's access to free or inexpensive legal services and the use of notary publics.

"At the most basic level, access starts with information," Flores said. "Language and cultural barriers impede Latinos from using legal services even when they know where to find them."

Najera's goal for the statistical analysis was to see if there was a correlation between the Latino community's awareness of inexpensive legal service in Las Vegas and demographic variables such as age, income, first language, and education level. This, he felt, would help them understand which group was most in need of outreach. After surveying nearly 400 members of the community, there was enough data for Najera to look for statistically significant associations.

After months of analysis, he was able to conclude that awareness for legal services was directly correlated with income and education level. This led the team to conclude that there should be more outreach to those with a lower income and education level in the community for these resources.

The study was presented to the Nevada Legislature in 2013 and used to craft Assembly Bill 74, titled "Legal Document Preparation Services." The new law regulates document preparation services by providing a set of rules that must be followed and sanctions for those who do not.

Najera said that he found it rewarding to work with his longtime friend on the legal study.

"We are such good friends and interact all the time in our personal lives, but have never interacted on an academic level," he said. "Edgar is very active in the community and has worked on several civic-minded initiatives. I was proud to collaborate with him on this project."