AL DÍA Top Lawyers 2022: Celebrating law's everyday heroes
Law is vast. AL DÍA helped three Latina attorneys realize their accomplishments from all across the board.
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When bankruptcy attorney Michele Perez Capilato learned she was a 2022 AL DÍA Top Lawyer, the process that came next allowed her to do something she hadn’t done in almost 20 years — write a bio.
Aside from the “surprise” she said of receiving award in the first place, writing the bio allowed her to take a step back from all she did in the day-to-day to appreciate her journey.
“It actually made me sit down and say, ‘you’ve done ok,’” Perez Capilato said in a recent interview with AL DÍA ahead of its 2022 Top Lawyers event on Friday, Nov. 18.
The Northeast Philly native with her own bankruptcy firm in Fort Washington is part of a new class of six attorneys being honored at this year’s ceremony at the Pyramid Club. She’s the small firm honoree for her achievements with that same self-founded practice, the Law Offices of Michele Perez Capilato.
In addition to running her own practice, Perez Capilato also works with a nonprofit effort to bring her bankruptcy services to low-income and predominantly Spanish-speaking communities in the Philadelphia region.
Unrecognized day-to-day greatness
It’s incredibly impactful work, but that essence often gets lost in the everyday of carrying it out.
“I keep my head down and I work, and I work, and I work, and I don’t come up for air,” said Perez Capilato. “This made me come up for air.”
That same sentiment was shared by fellow honoree Christina Pastrana Hernandez, who was recently elevated to be the chief of staff to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. Before that, she was an assistant director of legislation.
“It never occurred to me that this would be something that would be in my future, or likely,” said Hernandez when reflecting on her recognition as the government honoree at AL DÍA’s 2022 Top Lawyers ceremony.
Suzanne Prybella, senior counsel at PNC — a position she’s held for almost two years after almost six years in total at the banking giant — said she was “shocked” when she first got the email informing her of her selection as AL DÍA’s in-house honoree as part of its 2022 Top Lawyers class.
Despite her time at PNC, Prybella said the experience has been a quick one, especially ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and seemingly erased the last two years. The AL DÍA recognition was also a chance for her to reflect.
“It means a lot to be recognized for the work that I’m doing,” said Prybella. “It’s great.”
The parental push to law
Beyond their collective surprise at being recognized as AL DÍA Top Lawyers, Perez Capitalo, Hernandez and Prybella all had similar parental influences to pursue a career in law or something similar.
Prybella’s was the most direct. Growing up, her mom was a court interpreter. She was fluent in a number of languages, but predominantly operated between English and Spanish.
As the daughter of someone so involved in court on a day-to-day basis, Prybella got early exposure. Given her connections, she also spent her Summers as early as high school completing internships at the public defender’s office and a number of other firms. Prybella said she her fellow interns were all many years her senior, either as college students destined for law school or first-year law students.
For college, she attended Princeton University and got a Bachelor’s in ecology and evolutionary biology along with a certificate in Spanish language and culture.
The experience took her to Costa Rica for two Summers to study the country’s rainforests, but Prybella eventually returned to her law roots and the year after graduating she was at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.
While in law school, Prybella scored internships at both a small firm that did criminal defense work, and then Sunoco, where she got her first taste of being an in-house counsel.
After graduating in 2010, Prybella went to work for the Philadelphia firm White and Williams first as a law clerk and then an associate attorney. She stayed for a little more than seven years before making the transition to PNC as a member of its in-house counsel.
For Hernandez, the source of her law dreams were also her mom.
“I guess the short story is my mom sort of always had the idea in her mind that she wanted me to be a lawyer,” she said.
Hernandez initially rebelled against the idea until her sophomore year of college at Penn State University, when she caved and took up an internship at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
The experience not only took Hernandez out of State College and into Philadelphia, which she fell in love with, but also a new life trajectory as she fell in love with law.
Her new goal was also to one day be one of the high-profile, big city prosecutors she saw while in the Philly DA’s Office. To get there, after graduating from Penn State with degrees in History and Spanish, Hernandez also went to Temple’s Beasley School of Law.
She graduated from there in 2011 and immediately went to work at the DA’s Office, where she lived her dream as a big city prosecutor for four and a half years before completing a leadership fellowship at Drexel and making the switch to more policy-centered law as part of the administration of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
After almost seven years at the Mayor’s Office, Hernandez was elevated to Chief of Staff in October 2022.
Perez Capilato’s road to law begins growing up in Northeast Philadelphia. Like Prybella and Hernandez, her parents wanted a young Michele to strive to be her best with a career in law or medicine, but the neighborhood also came with its own lessons.
The family was middle-class like everyone else in their neighborhood, but faced discrimination as one of the few that were Latino. Perez Capilato and her brother were on the front lines of that discrimination.
“I developed a very tough skin,” she said.
It was not only for herself, but her brother and the few others who she said had it worse. In battling for them, Perez Capilato began to develop her lawyer roots to help those in need.
“I always felt the need to fight harder for them than I would for myself,” she said.
Career-wise, Perez Capilato’s journey to actually becoming a lawyer has many turns. She started by studying early childhood education and child psychology at Widener before trying paralegal studies and getting a certification.
However, as she dove further into the law as a paralegal, Perez Capilato fell in love with it, and eventually decided to “just go for it” regarding her own law degree. Like Hernandez and Prybella, Perez Capilato also attended Temple’s Beasley School of Law, where a writing class on bankruptcy gave her niche in the field.
“So many people, their credit score, they tie that to their dignity, to their self worth,” she said.
By guiding her clients through their financial stress, especially those from lower-income, first-generation communities, Perez Capilato is empowering them to chart their own paths in U.S. society.
In 2001, Perez Capilato graduated and began work as an attorney at a bankruptcy law firm in New Jersey. Three years later, she opened the Law Offices of Michele Perez Capilato in Fort Washington, where she offers similar bankruptcy services.
Advice for the next gen
Outside of the professional boost that comes with recognition as an AL DÍA Top Lawyer, Perez Capilato, Prybella and Hernandez are also leaders that the next generation of lawyers, Latino or not, can look up to and strive to follow in their footsteps.
Hernandez said to “trust yourself” on that journey, no matter where it takes you.
“Follow your heart and trust your instincts,” she said.
Prybella advised up-and-coming lawyers or law students to “plug in” with one of the many lawyer organizations or committees that provide a vital network and actively work to further the careers of those involved. She also said to accept mistakes as part of the growth process in the law field.
“Don’t be so afraid of making mistakes or risking failure that you don’t try,” said Prybella.
In law, she said, attorneys tend to always strive for perfection and get things right. That’s especially true for minority attorneys.
“I think sometimes too, as minority attorneys, we hold ourselves to a higher standard either because we feel we have to, or because we actually have to,” said Prybella.
That pressure is no reason to feel like you have to know everything immediately. Learn the power of saying “I don’t know.”
Perez Capilato told those thinking about pursuing law to embrace the journey.
“It’s ok to maybe go down the wrong path sometimes. I did that a few times,” she said. “I graduated a little later ultimately than I may have wanted to, but I have so much experience.”
Her second piece of advice? “Take a chance.”
And when recognized for the work that you eventually do, also take the chance to look back and appreciate the journey.
“It’s ok to accept something like this,” said Perez Capilato. “It’s ok to think you’ve accomplished something in your life and you get the recognition. It’s a good thing.”
Know all of the 2022 Top Lawyers
For the 2022 celebration of its Top Lawyers event, AL DÍA honored six leaders from across the field that have either paved the way for others to reach new heights or reaching for those new heights themselves.
Three — Suzanne Prybella (In House honoree), Christina Pastrana Hernandez (Government honoree) and Michele Perez Capilato (Small Firm honoree) — you’ve just learned about, but the remaining trio are major leaders in their own right.
Julia López (Mid-Large Firm honoree) is a litigation partner and attorney at Reed Smith LLP, one of the country’s largest and most respected law firms, where she is part of the Life Sciences Health Industry Group. But her leadership at the firm goes beyond just Life Sciences Health Industry, and also includes the firm’s Hispanic/Latinx Business Inclusion Group, known as UNIDOS.
There, López leadership shines, pushing Reed Smith to commit and follow through with its DE&I initiatives. She’s also currently the national finance director for the National Hispanic Bar Association.
López previously served as the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey’s 39th President, and also founded the first Scholarship Endowment for the organization. She also remains an active member of the New Jersey State Bar Association and has served on various committees.
López received her bachelor’s from Georgetown University and her juris doctorate from Rutgers School of Law-Newark, and is admitted to practice law in New Jersey and New York.
Juan Baez (Nonprofit honoree) is the Deputy Managing Attorney at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit public-interest law firm that provides free legal assistance to people living with HIV and those affected by the epidemic. It is the nation’s only independent public-interest law firm dedicated to people living with HIV.
Baez first worked with the AIDS Law Project while he was a student at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University. After graduating, he joined the Project as a staff attorney specializing in consumer debt, tax, estate planning, social security disability and student loan cases.
In addition to his current role as Deputy Managing Attorney, Baez is also Commissioner for the Philadelphia Fair Housing Commission, where he helps ensure that renters have safe spaces to live.
He also serves on the board for the Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania, where he served as president from 2017-2018.
Baez is admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, and is a graduate of Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law.
Romy Diaz (Lifetime Achievement honoree) is Principal of Turtle on Post, LLC.
In the role, he seeks board positions with companies that benefit from his senior-level experience navigating complex challenges across the entire range of operations. He also shares his deep experience with organizations pursuing innovative and sustainable solutions for customers and communities.
Diaz has had a long career spanning over 40 years. He had recently spent 12 years with PECO, in roles such as associate general counsel, vice president of governmental and external affairs, as well as vice president and general counsel, before retiring in 2020. He has also spent time working for the City of Philadelphia, as chair of commercial and regulatory law and city solicitor.
In addition, Diaz spent three years as assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
He began his career with the U.S. Department of Energy. Over 17 years with the Department, he filled a number of roles.
Diaz is a graduate of The University of Texas School of Law, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree before later obtaining his law degree.