Inside Track: Guzman overcomes language obstacles
Business owner, lawyer learns English while graduating magna cum laude from the MSU College of Law.
Raquel Salas Guzman said she knew she wanted to be an attorney since she was a child.
A few decades later, she not only fulfilled her dream of becoming an attorney, but she co-founded Avanti Law Group, the largest woman-owned and minority-owned law firm in Michigan.
She has been practicing law for nearly 12 years, but the path to get to where she is now was based on sheer determination. Guzman was raised by a single mother in the Dominican Republic.
As she got older, she developed a yearning to pursue her education in the United States. With the Caribbean Sea separating her from the mainland, Guzman took the closest route.
“I was super excited to live in America, and Puerto Rico was the closest,” she said. “To me, Puerto Rico was the best of two worlds. It was still under the umbrella of the United States, but (they spoke) Spanish. It was still an island, and it was close to the Dominican Republic.”
Guzman attended the Universidad del Este in Puerto Rico. She studied criminal justice, and while she was in school, she worked at a law firm as a paralegal. Guzman said she helped with criminal cases, civil litigation cases and personal injury cases.
After she earned her bachelor’s degree, she received her master’s degree in business before she moved to California with her then-husband. While in California, her desire to become a lawyer intensified and the only thing that stood in her way of earning her Juris Doctor was the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which created a slight problem.
RAQUEL SALAS GUZMAN
She no longer lived in a country where its native language was Spanish.
“I was like, ‘How do you pass an exam if you don’t have the capabilities?’” she said. “I couldn’t read that much in English, at least not at the fast timeframe they wanted us to.”
So, Guzman decided to study until she was able to pass the exam. She paid for Kaplan classes and also studied using books, CDs and cassettes that translated Spanish to English.
After much studying, she took the LSAT and started applying to law schools. She eventually moved to Michigan and attended the Michigan State University College of Law. Although she studied enough English to past the LSAT, her knowledge of the English language proved to be another obstacle when she started taking law classes.
“The first semester was so hard because now I had someone who is lecturing classes and going a million miles per second talking as other students were talking,” she said. “I was trying to translate everything in my head, and I was just not fast enough. I was missing everything that was going on. So, I was able to get special accommodation. They allowed me to record all of my classes. I would bring a recorder and let things go on and then at night I would go home and type everything myself and then translate everything.”
With that mindset, Guzman came to the realization that she needed to plan ahead. As a result, she used the syllabus for her classes to her advantage by studying topics way in advance.
Yet, there was another hurdle. While she could translate class discussions when she got home and study the pending topics in the syllabus ahead of time, class exams proved to be much more difficult.
“Sometimes, I would read something and understand it, but there would be one or two words that made it really hard for me to understand,” she said. “I remember one question had to do with a deer having a baby, but it was a buck and the neighbors were fighting over who the buck belonged to. I was like, ‘What does a dollar have to do with this?’ because the only definition I knew for a buck was a dollar. So, I couldn’t understand what a dollar had to do with a deer having a baby. So, it was hard because I just did not understand the word buck. I also remember having a problem with the word cashmere. A girl had on a blouse that was made of cashmere and someone threw water at her, and the question was, ‘What remedies does she have? Well, it depends, is that paper? Is that something that water can destroy or is it just going to get wet? I didn’t know what the word cashmere was. There was another question that I make fun of it now, but it was about a guy who was drunk and sleeping. His friends came over to shave his beard, but the way I read it was if this was a bear. I was like, ‘What does the animal have to do with this?’ I didn’t know that a beard was hair. So, when I encountered things like that, it was really hard.”
As a result of not understanding some words, the university allowed her to use a dictionary during her exams. It was a dictionary that translated English to Spanish and Spanish to English.
Although it was difficult for her throughout law school, Guzman said she knew she had to excel because of a loan she had taken out. She had to keep her GPA above a certain number to avoid the possibility of being on academic probation or being dismissed.
“There was no room for me not to pass, I needed to make it happen,” she said.
With that determination, she graduated magna cum laude with her J.D. from the Michigan State University College of Law.
After graduating, she started working at one of the biggest law firms in Michigan, Warner Norcross + Judd, where she practiced business and family law.
“It was like my dream job coming from a limited background as I did,” she said. “It was my first job as an attorney and my big job as an attorney. I was very excited.”
She worked there for almost three years before she decided to start her own firm in 2010.
“I had the opportunity to work and have my own firm, and at that time, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my career, what kind of work I wanted to perform, who I wanted my clients to be and I had the opportunity and I just couldn’t let that opportunity pass,” she said.
Avanti Law Group expanded from only three partners and one paralegal in 2010 to seven attorneys and 23 support staff in 2019. Her law firm deals with family law, criminal defense, immigration, labor and employment, class action litigation, personal injury and wrongful death, civil litigation and estate planning, among others.
The success of the firm wasn’t without some growing pains.
Guzman said the first three years were very difficult because she wasn’t just an attorney; she also was a business owner, which meant she was responsible for paying the bills, marketing her firm, being the financial planner and the bill collector, among other things.
Almost 10 years later, Guzman said she has enough staff to the point where she plans on relocating because her current office is small. Until then, Guzman said she will continue to work for the community.
“Right now, I see Avanti as a community-based law firm,” she said. “We are not only here to work but to impact our community. We hire from our community. We have a social responsibility to support our community. It matters to us when decisions on legislation affect our community. It matters to us when our community is struggling that we continue to provide … employment.”