Diana Cortés is the first Latina woman to be appointed as Philadelphia’s City Solicitor.  Harrison Brink
Diana Cortés is the first Latina woman to be appointed as Philadelphia’s City Solicitor.  Harrison Brink

Diana Cortés' journey to becoming Philly's First Latina City Solicitor

Cortés was recently confirmed by City Council as the next City Solicitor after being named in an acting role last year.


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Diana Cortés was nine years old when she decided she wanted to be a lawyer.

“I was one of those kids,” she told AL DÍA in a recent interview. “I really enjoyed arguing with my parents.”

Inspired by what she saw on TV on shows like Law & Order, Cortés set her heart on being a lawyer that litigates in a courtroom. But courtroom drama would be something she experienced but moved on from on her way to becoming Philadelphia’s first Latina City Solicitor.

Hugo and Marlene

Cortés’s story starts in New Jersey, where her parents, Hugo and Marlene, settled after immigrating from Costa Rica. 

They had moved the day after they got married. 

Hugo’s mother was in New York City for a time, but her son found work as an engineer and a good deal on a house in Dover, a town an hour west of the Big Apple that had a burgeoning Latino population.

Marlene was a trained teacher in her home country.

“Initially, I think like a lot of other immigrants, they thought they were going to come here for all the opportunities. I think initially still longing to go back,” said Cortés.

That was until they had Diana and her two brothers.

With a young family, the focus shifted to what place provided the best future for the children.

Dover won out, but it did not come without its sacrifices for Hugo and Marlene. 

“Basically, our entire extended family is still in Costa Rica,” said Cortés. “We didn’t grow up with, like, cousins or aunts or anything like that.”

Instead, they got a U.S. education and all the opportunities that come along with it.

Cortés was chosen as one of the 40 honorees at AL DÍA’s inaugural 40 Under Forty celebration in August 2020.   Harrison Brink
Dover, New Jersey

Despite being a predominantly-Latino town, Dover sits  in the middle of Morris County, New Jersey, which is 83% white, according to 2019 census data, and the second-wealthiest county in the state.

Looking back, Cortés called it “a great training ground” for her career in law as one of the few women of color.

“It’s challenging just cause I think as a woman of color, we will always face some type of discrimination, whether it’s overt or not,” she said.

She can remember going to other high schools in the county for a basketball or softball game, or her favorite, a debate team meet, and hear fans and competing students tell her and her teammates to “go back to the ghetto,” among other racists, stereotyped jibes. 

But it wasn’t all negative.

Cortés also credits Dover and her parents with instilling in her a strong sense of herself and her identity as a “proud Latina.”

Cortés also credits Dover and her parents with instilling in her a strong sense of herself and her identity as a “proud Latina.”

Both Hugo and Marlene were bilingual but only spoke Spanish in the house with their kids, fostering a sense of pride and belonging in the home.

As a Latina, Cortés’ mom made sure her daughter never doubted her self-worth or capabilities.

“You show everyone that you, as a Latina, can do everything that they can do, but even better,” she remembers her mom telling her.

Her parents’ support was vital because Cortes and her brothers didn’t have anyone else.

Minds Matter

That support pushed a young Diana to get involved with the organization Minds Matter, a free mentorship program for high school students preparing to go to college. She attended the New York branch with her parents’ total commitment to helping her complete the program.

“They made it a point to drive me from our house, up to New York — to Manhattan — every Saturday,” said Cortes.

At the Saturday meetups, students would prepare for the SATs and practice essay writing, among other skills, to get ahead in the push for college acceptance.

Participating students were also required to apply and get into pre-college summer programs at universities around the country.

In the program, Cortes attended both Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, for her summer programs.

These not only offered a preview of what college was going to be like being away from home, but also built a resume for Cortes and allowed her to chart an early path to becoming a lawyer.

“I was exposed to more of what a lawyer did and more of the steps it took to get there,” she said.

She would eventually apply and get into Cornell University.

Cortes took the spot of Acting City Solicitor after Marcel S. Pratt, the youngest City Solicitor for Philadelphia, announced he would be stepping down.   Harrison Brink
Cornell and Villanova Culture Shock

Cortes describes her time there as “interesting,” given she was one of the few Latinas at the Ivy League school.

Thinking back, she again points to the sense of self instilled in her by her mother and Dover as the key to making it through. It was also another preparatory step to the Latina lawyer life she would come to lead.

After graduating from Cornell with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Labor Relations, Cortes got an opportunity via a scholarship to attend law school at Villanova.

Other than the occasional family vacation to Philadelphia, it was Cortes’ first time living near the city. In her own words, it was another “eye-opening experience.”

“I did not know anything about the mainline,” said Cortes.

“I did not know anything about the mainline,” said Cortes.

She remembers pulling into the school’s parking lot ahead of her first tort class and seeing all the luxury cars parked there. When she got to class, some of her other female classmates sported pearls, among other jewelry identifying them as upper class. 

“A lot of folks there were just very fancy,” said Cortes.

Still, she says she was able to make great friends and connections during the experience.

Judge Juan Sánchez

At Villanova, Cortes took an externship with Judge Juan Sánchez for a semester.

“It was the first time in my life that I had been working for a Latino,” she said.

As a lawyer, Cortes said she learned a lot from being around Sánchez in what was her first true mentorship.

“He recognizes his role and responsibility as that mentor,” she said. “Whether you’re the extern, whether you’re the assistant, everyone gets his mentoring.”

First, working under Sánchez as a law clerk was different to what Cortes’ remembers of the dramatized television version of being a lawyer - constantly arguing and persuading a jury in the courtroom.

Rather than being in the courtroom, she spent her time researching and providing advice to Sánchez.

“That was the first time that I was ok, basically, not being in the courtroom,” said Cortes.

She liked it so much that she applied to be a law clerk with Sánchez after graduating, and he accepted her onto his team.

As a Latino, Sánchez never offered Cortes verbal advice but led by example in showing her how she too could succeed.

To her, he showed a drive to work harder than anyone else.

“I think he makes it a point to make sure whenever anyone sees his work, they know he has given everything and then some,” said Cortés.

On Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, Cortés was officially confirmed as the new City Solicitor.    Harrison Brink
A dream realized

She clerked with Sánchez for two years before moving onto Morgan Lewis for two more years and finally achieving what she thought she wanted - an opportunity at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

The experience finally allowed Cortés to live her childhood dream of getting into the courtroom and arguing to a judge and jury.

But she wasn’t satisfied.

“I really enjoyed having a client, and at the DA’s office, you don’t have a client,” said Cortés.

“I really enjoyed having a client, and at the DA’s office, you don’t have a client,” said Cortés.

With her dream realized, Cortés’ next position came at Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman and Goggin, where she worked another two years doing civil rights work.

Making history twice

The job would bring her in contact with Marcel Pratt, then-Chair of the Litigation Group in the Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office under Sozi Tulante. When Tulante left, and Pratt was elevated to City Solicitor, Cortés was asked to join the city as Pratt’s replacement chairing the Litigation Group.

With the appointment, Cortés became the first Latina to chair the group in city history.

When Pratt left to return to Ballard Spahr, Cortés was elevated to Acting City Solicitor on Nov. 17, 2020, before being confirmed by Philadelphia City Council on Feb. 10, 2021, as the first Latina ever to lead the office of 200+ attorneys.

She describes her rise with a mix of emotions.  

“I was truly humbled and honored, but also, I think, worried and scared and nervous, but also excited,” said Cortés. “You’re not only asked to be the next City Solicitor, but the next City Solicitor in the middle of a pandemic, and all these other things going on.”

Philly’s legal future

Four months into the job, Cortés said it is both rewarding and challenging at the same time.

From the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn to Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic, she said it is at times difficult to stay positive but credits the team around her with being on the same page and trying to improve the situation as best they can.

“I’m really happy to be at their head and be their number one advocate in any way that I can,” said Cortés.

Top of the list of issues is the city’s pending $450 million deficit, with her office fielding calls from the City Council, the City Treasury, and the City Finance Director offering legal ways forward.

For gun violence, Cortés’ office has filed a lawsuit alongside the City Council and others against Pennsylvania, demanding it declares pre-emption unconstitutional regarding gun laws. 

Should it succeed, the city will finally be able to enact its own common-sense gun laws without the state overriding them.

Cortés’s office also deals with environmental litigation concerning climate change and combating the opioid crisis, about which it has filed a lawsuit against manufacturers.

Cortés is no stranger to being the first Latina to hold high positions in Philadelphia’s law department.   Harrison Brink
Diversity, equity, and inclusion

The other significant change Cortés is bringing to the office is an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Next year, everyone working at the office will undergo a diversity, equity, and inclusion assessment, and she said they’re in the process of quantifying what it would look like. 

“We need to make sure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are on everyone’s minds, always,” said Cortés.

“We need to make sure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are on everyone’s minds, always,” said Cortés.

She would know their importance, considering she’d also be the first to tell you that she was “one of the few” throughout her entire law career.

But just like her mother instilled in her, Cortez wants to instill self-belief and confidence in the next generation.

“Be brave and have faith in yourself,” she said, “and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything.” 


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