A group of Venezuelan-born lawyers have decided it’s time for them to form their own bar association.
Venezuelan American National Bar Association, or Venambar, is the brainchild of two Venezuelan American attorneys based in Miami: Daniel Vielleville, who works for Assouline and Berlowe, and Angel Valverde, who works at Concepcion, Martinez & Belido. It’s been in the works for nearly a year, as bylaws were written, a board of directors appointed and events planned.
The kickoff event for Venambar will be Thursday at Northern Trust’s downtown Miami offices. Federico Moreno, chief judge of the U.S. District for the Southern District of Florida and himself a Venezuelan native, will serve as keynote speaker.
“We saw there was a vacuum with respect to an organization that promotes the practice and exchange of ideas of Venezuelan lawyers and businesses in South Florida,” said Vielleville, who will serve as president of the organization. “We decided there’s a critical mass of Venezuelan attorneys where we can have our own organization and pursue our own interests.”
Vielleville estimates there are at least 200 Venezuelan American lawyers living in the United States, with more journeying north due to the fragmented political and economic situation in Venezuela. The organizers decided to make the group national rather than South Florida-focused due to the growing number of Venezuelan attorneys in Houston, New York and other U.S. cities.
The group’s purpose is to provide Venezuelan American lawyers a chance to network with other lawyers, companies and in-house counsel, as well as to help educate Venezuelan lawyers interested in moving to the United States on how to accomplish the move.
One thing Venambar will not be, the founders emphasize, is political.
“CABA (The Cuban American Bar Association) is very political,” Vielleville noted. “Perhaps they have to be. But most of the people here have clients in Venezuela. The political situations in Venezuela and Cuba are very different.”
CABA, powerful in the Miami-Dade legal community, has not shied away from taking stands on political issues, firing off letters to entertainers Jay Z and Beyonce to protest their recent trip to Cuba, chastizing Urban Outfitters for using Che Guevara’s image in an ad campaign, withdrawing its support for a major Florida Bar dinner at which former Attorney General Janet Reno was scheduled to speak and withdrawing its sponsorship of a lawyers’ night at Marlins Stadium to protest pro-Fidel Castro remarks made by then-Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen.
CABA maintains a “CABA on Cuba Committee” to recommend to the CABA board what the association’s position and role would be if a political transition occurs in Cuba.
Venambar has no such committee or function. Manuel Gomez, an FIU law professor who serves as the Coordinator of International Legal Projects and leads the Global Legal Studies Initiative, said that was one of his first questions when asked to participate in the group.
“I was told this will not be a group that will engage in political discourse,” Gomez said. “We want to engage the universities. We want this to be an intellectual platform and not a political one, and that’s a fine line. We don’t want to start sounding like we’re spouting exile politics.”
In addition to the two founders, the board of directors includes lawyers from powerful law firms: Adriana Kostencki of Fowler White Burnett, Jorge Guttman of Gunster, Jaime Guttman of Greenberg Traurig and Thomas Pate of White & Case.
Gomez sits on a foreign attorneys committee along with independent international arbitrator Eloy Anzola, Northern Trust Bank trust officer Oscar Diaz and Venezuelan attorney Alexandra Paquin. All are Venezuelan attorneys who are not licensed to practice law in the United States.
A pro bono committee will seek to assist Venezuelan attorneys who want to practice in the United States and don’t know how to go about doing so. Vielleville says he personally has advised at least 10 practicing lawyers on the matter.
A licensed attorney in Venezuela, Vielleville was concerned for his safety in the country and frustrated with an “extremely problematic” court system there. In 2000, he took advantage of an offer from Greenberg Traurig to move to Miami and work for the firm while obtaining a law degree here. He attended the University of Miami School of Law.
Vielleville, who since left Greenberg, specializes in international arbitration.
“Because of the problems in Venezuela, a lot of attorneys come here with their families and not much money,” he said.
U.S. law schools accept some credits from Venezuelan law schools. However, foreign lawyers must attend law school in the United States to receive their law licenses — and some are reluctant to repeat law school. Additionally, obtaining loans and financial aid is extremely challenging for foreigners, he said.
The Venezuelan lawyers group already has created a buzz in Caracas, where lawyers have been talking about it, said Gomez, who recently visited there.
“We saw that the Venezuelan legal community was starting to grow, not just here but nationally, due to the political and economic situation in Venezuela,” Valverde said. “We want to advocate for the rights of the Venezuelan attorneys living in the United States.”