AL DÍA Top Lawyers 2022: A night of Latino law legends and the next generation
For its sixth year, AL DÍA’s celebration of the best Latino legal talent in the region inducted six more names into its illustrious hall of honorees.
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When AL DÍA Top Lawyer board member Sharon Lopez took the podium at this year’s Top Lawyers celebration at the Pyramid Club in Philadelphia, she gave the 2022 honorees and all the other law leaders in the room a mandate.
When it comes to the next generation of Latino lawyers in the field, of which there are more than there ever were when Lopez first went to law school at Widener, it’s a duty of the leaders to guide and nurture them on their way to success.
“We have to make sure we water that garden,” offered Lopez as a metaphor.
That’s really been the goal of AL DÍA’s Top Lawyer event since its inception, and as MC for the night Alex Gonzalez pointed out to start the program, names like U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Jacqueline Romero, Philadelphia City Solicitor Diana Cortes, Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, James P. Faunes, Carolina Cruz, and Dan Mateo, are just some of the prestigious names of not only Latino lawyers to make a mark, but also AL DÍA Top Lawyers.
They all battled through legal worlds where they were surrounded by people not like them, but they found success anyway.
Back when Lopez went to Widener Law in 1999, the school had just opened the Harrisburg campus she attended, and she was one of two Latino law students in a class of 38.
The other student? Current Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging Robert Torres, who was the keynote speaker for AL DÍA’s 2022 Top Lawyers forum.
For him, the aging PA community is the focus of his work, but he began his speech by citing a fact that’s still true in law.
“People of color are underrepresented in the legal field,” Torres said.
However, like Lopez, Torres persevered and became a first generation attorney in his Puerto Rican family. He was helped by his sister, who went into law first and has since passed the bug down to his niece, who’s a practicing attorney, and his daughter, who’s still in school at Georgetown.
His message was clear — encourage more diverse students to pursue law and allow them to see others like them succeed so they can do the same for others down the line.
In thinking back, Torres emphasized his own success despite a “nontraditional” route to law.
“What exactly are you?” is a question he said he’s received more than once when others looked at his resume.
Torres started professionally as a private accountant before falling into law. He also started in the legal private sector before realizing it left a lot to be desired when it came to the impact he wanted to make. With that realization, Torres’ public sector career started, and it has culminated as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Aging, a post he was appointed to by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf in 2019.
Throughout his time as secretary, Torres said it has been the tools and principles he learned as an attorney that guide his day-to-day. For one, it’s allowed him to build partnerships across departments at the state — some that didn’t exist before to better streamline services to PA’s aging population.
The other Torres mentioned is efforts of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), something that hits at the heart of his experience as a Latino in law.
“As a Latino lawyer, I’m very sensitive to DE&I issues,” he said.
An example came early on in his time as Secretary of Aging. When his staff showed him a newly-created pamphlet highlighting the state benefits available to PA’s aging population. His first question was whether it was translated into Spanish.
It wasn’t, but is now because of Torres’ advocacy.
But as he led off his speech is also how Torres ended it — he can’t be alone in that advocacy and leadership.
“We also need those in the field [Latino lawyers] to assume leadership,” he said. “We need more of you.”
All six of the 2022 AL DÍA Top Lawyer honorees carry that leadership torch in their own ways.
Juan Baez, the nonprofit honoree, does it as the deputy managing attorney at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. It is the only independent public interest law firm in the U.S. dedicated to people living with HIV and educating the public about AIDS-related legal issues.
He first found the firm as a law student at Drexel’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law and has been with it ever since.
In accepting his award, Baez also spoke to the importance of representation in a field like law.
“Representation allows us to see more of what’s possible in the world around us,” he said.
Michele Perez Capilato’s leadership as AL DÍA’s small firm honoree comes in two forms. For one, she’s an entrepreneur as the founder of her own bankruptcy law firm, which was out in force at the event on Nov. 18.
Her second leadership pillar is as a staff attorney at the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project of Philadelphia (CBAPP). She started as a volunteer helping project’s Spanish-speaking clients, but was convinced to come aboard as a staff attorney after learning of the backlog of three years for that particular client group. She’s the only one that can serve them given her bilingual upbringing.
Both at her own firm and with CBAPP, she said the work of helping others through financial stress “feeds her soul.”
For Julia López, AL DÍA’s Mid-Large Firm honoree, the mission of getting more Latinos and Latinas in law is especially near and dear to her heart at her firm Reed Smith.
It’s one of the biggest firms in the U.S., and López’s position as a partner gives her a particular power to make sure it is meeting its DE&I goals. She’s also held positions at the Hispanic National Bar Association and the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey.
“Nuestra comunidad Latina must work together,” she said in a virtual recording played for attendees.
Suzanne Prybella, the in-house honoree on the night, has slowly built herself into leadership as part of the in-house counsel team at PNC Bank over five years.
In addition to her work at PNC, Pryzbella works on the board of the Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania, where she awards scholarships (like AL DÍA’s named after the Honorable Nelson Diaz) and other opportunities to up-and-coming lawyers.
Christina Pastrana Hernandez’s leadership takes a different form every day of the week as the Chief of Staff for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
As the government honoree, she tackles everything from the menial to the mental. Examples of the latter she cited in her acceptance speech include the murder of Philadelphia Streets Department worker Ikeem Johnson on the morning of Nov. 18 and the arrival of migrants from Texas in a bus to 30th Street Station on Wednesday, Nov. 16.
And that’s just in the span of three days.
Still, despite the harsh peaks and valleys, Pastrana Hernandez said her career in public service is one that has her life’s dedication.
“While events like today make my job hard and sometimes keep me up at night,” she said. “I continue coming into work and working hard because of other incredible things we have been doing.”
The last honoree, Romy Diaz, now has 50 years of that leadership experience in law as the lifetime achievement honoree.
“What a wonderful ride it has been and continues to be,” Diaz said to kick off his acceptance speech.
It’s a ‘ride’ that’s seen Diaz shift between public and private sectors and inspire a generation of Latino and LGBTQ+ lawyers — many of whom were on hand to pay their respects to the Texas native, but Philadelphia legend.
If Diaz’s journey is any indication of what’s possible for those awarded on Nov. 18 and beyond, the future is bright.