The Empathy Muscle

Daniel R. Hernandez on making Chicago a more equitable place to live

Published in 2024 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

By Amy White on February 1, 2024

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Daniel R. Hernandez will admit it: “I’m a little tired sometimes.”

And why wouldn’t he be? He’s the founder of NextLevel Law, a family boutique in Chicago that operates on an innovative subscription-based model; in 2022 he was appointed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to serve as commissioner for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations; he’s president emeritus of the board of directors of Between Friends, a nonprofit that seeks to end domestic violence in the city; and he serves as regional president for the Hispanic National Bar Association.

“I like to flex my empathy muscle,” Hernandez says. “I want the body of my work to make Chicago a more equitable place to live.”

Hernandez in 2023 at Light Up the Lakefront, a Between Friends event that brings awareness to domestic violence.

Hernandez thinks his background factored into Lightfoot’s decision to tap him for his role on the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. “I’m a gay man, I’m a Latino man, and I’m a first-generation American,” he says. “My background intersects multiple backgrounds of underrepresented people, and I think that specific voice on the commission is important.”

His chops as a trial lawyer don’t hurt, either, as the job of the commission is to investigate and adjudicate alleged violations of the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance. “The commission will investigate a complaint, administrative law judges give the commission a recommendation, and it’s then our duty to review and issue our final ruling on whatever the case is,” Hernandez says.

It’s been eye-opening for the family law attorney to see how many cases of discrimination exist in Chicago housing. “It’s shocking what happens, particularly to renters,” he says. “I’m hoping our work puts landlords on notice: You can’t discriminate against someone just based on their income stream or another immutable characteristic.”

Hernandez cites gig workers, small-business owners, or people with housing vouchers as those who are struggling to secure a safe space to live. “[Because] a landlord doesn’t like where the funds are coming from, they’re turning them away,” he says. “This makes no logical sense.”

Hernandez with Sandy T. Williams and Chris Hush at Between Friends’ “An Evening with Friends” fundraiser in 2022.

His work toward equity continues with the Hispanic National Bar Association. “The last time I checked, Latinos only make up 5 percent of the entire law profession, and from this number, Latinas in particular are less than 2 percent. Meanwhile, Latinos make up 20 percent of the general population,” Hernandez says. “While my work with the association is about promoting membership, the sub-mission is promoting the Hispanic community. It’s important to be present and to show that we are here.”

He saves time for the victims advocacy group Between Friends, for which he previously served as president of the board. When Hernandez first stepped on, the agency was providing about 4,000 domestic abuse survivors with resources, prevention services, and programming; under his leadership, the number swelled to 9,000. He helped grow the budget, too, which ultimately provided more staffers on the ground, going into schools with the REACH prevention curriculum and talking to Chicago students about healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Of course, there’s also that day job. Hernandez has revolutionized his firm’s pay structure with his own roots in mind. “When I was thinking about my clients, I thought a lot about my parents,” he says. “We were middle class—we got by. My dad was a truck driver and my mom worked in an entry-level claims-processing center her whole life. Could they afford to hire me? I didn’t think they could.”

So Hernandez opts for a monthly subscription fee. “I collect at a rate of 93%, which is well above the average family law firm rate of collection,” he says.

When Hernandez puts it all in perspective, it again comes down to his roots. “My family comes from Cuba, and lived through everyone getting their rights taken away. Why did the government do that? Because they could control the people. Why would they control the people? Because there was no democracy, and that goes down to the most local levels,” he says. “I think some people could say that the commission I sit on is small, in the sense of the things that we do in the city. But that’s where change starts.”

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