“Since I was a child, I’ve been aware of the importance of labor and employment issues on an individual’s day-to-day life.”

Growing up in Chicago’s West Side, Gray Mateo-Harris saw firsthand the impact of unfair working conditions on the lives of blue-collar, minority workers like her parents. But never one to see issues in black and white, she also recognized the need for passionate, morally driven professionals to work on the side of employers to prevent and redress labor and employment claims. Only 28, she has already defended employers in litigation at the state court and federal court level and represented employers in arbitrations, union negotiations, and before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the National Labor Relations Board. With her drive, zest for taking on new challenges, and unique perspective, it’s clear the fourth-year associate at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP (NGE) is just getting started.

Witnessing my parents’ struggles at work [in the United States] and with their unions sparked my interest in labor and employment law. When I was only seven years old, my family left the Dominican Republic to pursue the American dream. My mother was a professor and my father was an agricultural engineer. But despite their educations, both were forced into the humble work of the labor industry, as are so many immigrants in the US. Since I was a child, I’ve been aware of the importance of labor and employment issues on an individual’s day-to-day life.

LABOR OF LOVE Like many first-generation Latinas, Dominican-born Gray Mateo-Harris was the first member of her family to graduate from college in the United States—let alone go on to law school.

My family also ingrained in me early on that education was the key to success. I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, cum laude, with a triple major [in psychology, gender and women’s studies, and speech communication] and received my Juris Doctorate cum laude from the College of Law. But the greatest honor for me was being the first in my family to attain a collegiate education in the US—let alone a law degree.

During my first year of law school, NGE sponsored my scholarship through the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois Scholarship Fund. From that moment, I knew there was something unique about the firm, and that it would be a place where I’d be able to make a difference. I was intrigued by the fact that NGE was one of the largest single-office law firms in the country, which allows for a more centralized leadership team, a more unified family of lawyers, and a deeper, more client-focused approach to the practice of law. This is the way I wanted to practice law.

I have always been humble and appreciative of my opportunities, and I think the success I’ve [experienced] at NGE is due to that. I am grateful every day for the amazing breaks I’ve been given here and, consequently, I try not to take any project—no matter how big or small—for granted. My diverse background and experiences dialoguing about difficult topics with different types of people has helped me develop strong working relationships with clients, attorneys, support staff, and other members of the legal system from all walks of life.

As a young Latina, it’s been important for me to take ownership of my career and to continue to seek challenging and fulfilling work. The life I’ve created for myself is one in which I set aside time for my family, hobbies, and the projects I enjoy. I’ve been able to provide pro bono services in a political-asylum case, as well as to the Latino Policy Forum, Rape Victim Advocates (RVA), and the Circuit Court of Cook County Domestic Violence Clinic. I also dedicate my time to diversity-related efforts and activities I care about. I work with the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce whenever possible and am deeply involved as a board member with RVA, and an associate board member with the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms. My most enjoyable experiences, however, have come from mentoring diverse students [interested in pursuing the field of law].

I love my work, even the toughest cases, but the greatest highlights of my career have been seeing the proud faces of my family at my law school graduation, swearing-in ceremony, and during their first trip to my office at NGE. Everything that lies ahead, including taking on leadership roles at NGE and in my community, it’s all just thrilling, and will ultimately allow me to continue my lifelong goal of showing others like me that, “Hey, I made it—and so can you!”