How does heritage impact careers in the law profession?
Three prominent Latino legal professionals answer this very question during the inaugural Nelson Díaz Professorship event on Feb. 27.
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It has been just over 50 years since Nelson Díaz blazed a trail as the first-ever Latino to pass the Pennsylvania Bar Exam.
As Díaz has navigated his career in Philadelphia as a lawyer, judge, General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Philadelphia City Solicitor, and several other roles, one thing has remained constant.
That is; his desire to open doors for other Latinos and diverse individuals in the legal industry.
Fast forward to today, and the very city where Díaz built his career now features a Latino in four of the top law enforcement and judiciary positions in the region.
What role has their Latino background and heritage played in their career trajectory? It’s a question they answered during a panel discussion on Feb. 27 at the inaugural celebration of the Honorable Nelson A. Diaz Professorship in Law event.
Philly’s Chief Legal Officer
Diana Cortés has spent her legal career in and out of the public and private sectors.
In 2020, she made history by becoming the first Latina City Solicitor in Philadelphia.
“Being in the public sector, being part of the government has been one of the greatest honors of my life,” she said.
That honor extends when it comes to being the first Latina City Solicitor.
In the role, Cortés serves as general counsel to the Mayor and his Administration, City Council, and all City departments, agencies, boards, and commissions, while also managing the City’s Law Department.
Overall, she works alongside a team of more than 330 “dedicated public servants on a daily basis.”
When it comes to her Latinx heritage, it impacts her work everyday.
“I love being a Latina,” said Cortés. “It to me is a heritage filled with resilience, entrepreneurship, grit, [and] hard work.”
Growing up, Cortés’ mother “in true Latina mother fashion” gave her no option but to bring those qualities with her everywhere she went.
Whether it was her work as a litigation attorney or assistant director attorney, those qualities stuck with her along the way.
Her bilingualism has also been a positive for her as she has navigated her legal career.
“Being bilingual has definitely opened up many other doors,” she said. “I’ve always made it a point to not just be somebody’s interpreter or translator, I’m a lawyer, as well. So, I’m going to make sure to give them legal analysis.”
Chief Judge of PA’s Eastern District
Juan Sánchez was 12 years old when he first moved to The Bronx, New York, from Puerto Rico.
He didn’t speak a word of English. However, he was determined, and soon got involved with ASPIRA, which works to foster social advancement in the Latino community.
His involvement with ASPIRA proved to be a huge eye-opener.
“I learned through ASPIRA that our community is filled with problems,” said Sánchez. “Health issues, access to adequate health, employment, housing, violence.”
Upon learning these things, his career path became apparent to him.
“I was motivated to get a quality education and become a lawyer,” he noted.
His commitment to public interest led him to roles such as legal services attorney, public defender, and federal judge.
In 2018, he made history in becoming the first Hispanic Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
His heritage has provided much guidance and influence.
“I come from people that are hard workers in Puerto Rico. Many of my family were people who worked in the farms — my father drove a truck, and my mother migrated to the United States in New York to pretty much work in a factory,” said Sánchez.
“So, that work ethic as a Latino has motivated me to continue to work hard and to continue to pursue a successful career and to give back now that I’m in a position where I can make a difference,” he added.
As Chief Judge in one of the largest courts in the nation, Sánchez has been dedicated to positively impact as many people as he can, and “to make sure that I contribute to the administration of justice, and make things better for all people.”
“My whole life has been dedicated to achieving some equity in socioeconomic justice,” he added.
The Lead Law Enforcement Officer in PA
In the words of Jacqueline Romero, being US Attorney “is quite the job.”
She etched her name in the history books in 2022 as the first woman and Latina to even be nominated, let alone, confirmed to the post.
As the chief federal law enforcement officer responsible for all federal criminal prosecutions and civil litigation involving the Eastern District, Romero faces a packed agenda each day.
To successfully perform at her job, her Latinx background is paramount.
“I wouldn’t be here, but for my background,” she said.
Romero comes from a family of Spanish immigrants. Her grandfather came to the United States alone at the age of 16 with nothing, but the determination to learn how to thrive and make a living in the U.S.
Upon his arrival, he relied on friends who helped him find jobs here and there. Eventually, he saved up enough money to buy a piece of land and open a bodega, which would ultimately become the Romero family diner.
“I grew up in that diner and all of the values of being young and from a Hispanic family in a family business are what I bring to the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Romero.
Over the years, Romero saw her grandfather create opportunities for countless others to start their own businesses and bring several other immigrants over to work alongside him at the diner.
That sparked her own desire to pursue a career where she could also do public service.
“You learn from that as a young kid that your job is to help others, it’s to problem solve and help others figure out how to thrive and make a good living in life.”
Whether it’s her role as U.S. Attorney, her previous 16 years working at the Office as Assistant District Attorney, or her prior roles, public service has been at the forefront of her mission.
The Root of the Work
Philadelphia is a city that is among the most diverse in the nation.
Given that level of diversity, it’s critically important that the leaders of the city represent that diverse population — in the legal field, and beyond.
That is where the topic of racial justice comes in.
“We can’t get away from racial justice,” Cortés said. “That is part of our work, that is part of the fabric of the work of this city.”
The goal should be to make each generation of legal professionals more diverse.
“We are in a positive to make a difference, to lift the generation that comes behind. Don’t see them as threats,” said Sánchez. “Very often, we see them as threats to our existence, and that is wrong.”
“We have to cultivate the next generation of leaders so that they can take our place and multiply.”
That has also been an important endeavor for Romero.
“I am always out there in the community, pushing diversity, trying to get more applications that are diverse applicants, applying to our office,” she said.
Rewind 50 years to when Judge Díaz first charted his professional path. There were no others who looked like him.
However, today Cortés, Sánchez, and Romero represent the faces of the Latinx law professionals who have taken the reigns for further generations to take into the future.
It’s a reflection that Latinos within the legal profession are here to stay.