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The five champions of justice at this year's AL DÍA Top Lawyers Forum. Graphic: AL DÍA News.
The five champions of justice at this year's AL DÍA Top Lawyers Forum. Graphic: AL DÍA News.

AL DÍA Top Lawyers 2020: Honoring Latino lawyers breaking barriers past and present

The virtual ceremony held on Oct. 22 celebrated five champions of justice in the Philadelphia-area and a sixth that led the way for all of them.

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Just two weeks after holding its biggest event of the year virtually in the 2020 AL DÍA Hispanic Heritage Awards, AL DÍA held its 2020 Top Lawyers Forum on Oct. 22.

Virtual like everything in these times of coronavirus, the ceremony still packed as much inspiration and celebration for Latino lawyers as 2019’s in-person ceremony, with a few added perks. 

Rather than three, this year’s forum honored five Latino champions of justice carving their paths at a small firm, mid-large firm, as in-house counsel, in the nonprofit sector, and in government.

The five champions

In that order, the honorees were as follows: Sharon Lopez, managing attorney at Triquetra Law, Carlos Bollar, attorney at Archer Law, Renee Garcia, managing senior counsel at PNC Bank, Anita Santos-Singh, executive director of Philadelphia Legal Assistance, and Jacqueline Romero, assistant U.S. district attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

During their acceptance speeches, each awardee either touched upon the meaning of their work, their inspiration, or the importance of highlighting Latinx leaders in law.

Lopez spoke about the meaning of her and Triquetra Law’s work to the residents of Lancaster, PA, where the firm is based.

“Our work here in Lancaster is critical to the community,” she said.

That’s especially true for the county’s Latinx community, which sits at 11% according to 2010 census data that will soon be outdated.

Triquetra handles cases in employment law, anti-discrimination law, and appellate advocacy. 

Lopez also shared that she is one of the few Latino lawyers in the county, which further elevates the importance of her own work.

Bollar touched on the importance of highlighting Latino lawyers like him and the other honorees because they act as leaders for younger generations of lawyers.

“The pipeline into the legal profession is so critically important,” he said.

Garcia used her speech to call upon other in-house counsel lawyers to be the ones in their companies that put an emphasis on social justice programs in front of the CEO.

“These programs are not just nice to have. This isn’t something that the legal department does just as a hobby on the side,” she said. “It is something that supports directly the corporate goals and should be treated as such.”

In the same vein, Santos-Singh called attention to the moment the U.S is living through, amid a pandemic, close to an election and a reinvigorated cry for social and racial justice. 

“I am proud to represent the Latinx attorneys who are fighting for social and racial justice every day,” she said.

Santos-Singh is also one of those attorneys in her work at Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

“They bring me inspiration and make me believe there is a better tomorrow,” she said.

Romero dedicated her award to her parents, who she credits with molding her into the champion of justice she is today.

In particular, Romero told the story of her father, who opened his own diner in Tenafly, New Jersey, and had an ability to see the potential in people no matter their outward appearance or past. 

It led him to hire immigrants, the disabled, and those addicted to drugs and down on their luck.

“He took chances on people,” said Romero.

Seeing that has shaped her career as a lawyer — one who’s always looking for the potential of people no matter what side of the courtroom they sit.

The trailblazer

But while Lopez, Bollar, Garcia, Santos-Singh, and Romero represent the current generation of Latinx lawyers poised to be the influences of the next, the recipient of the annual Gus Garcia Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 was Judge Nelson Diaz, who opened the door for every Latinx lawyer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and beyond.

In his acceptance speech, Diaz said he wished he had done more in his illustrious career, such as risen to a spot on the state Supreme Court, better supported Philadelphia Schools, and opened more doors to corporate boardrooms and other professions. 

However, he left the door open for the other honored leaders to continue carving the path forward.

“I’ve done the best that I can,” said Diaz. “I hope that you will continue to work hard and continue some of my dreams and efforts.”

Diaz is also the namesake of the Nelson Diaz Scholarship, which was announced at the ceremony by AL DÍA CEO Hernán Guaracao and will go to an aspiring Latinx student of law at the 2021 AL DÍA Top Lawyers Forum. 

The talk with a star

The night also featured a fireside chat between Alex Gonzalez and honored guest Judge L. Felipe Restrepo that traced a dialogue through a number of topics rooted in the judge’s past — like his path to citizenship — present — like the impact of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and future — like his legacy and supporting the next generation of Latinx lawyers.

Despite the work it takes to get where he is as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Restrepo told any young lawyer entering the field that the key throughout it all is finding a work-life balance.

“Keep it all in perspective, and find that balance,” he said.

The esteemed audience

An added treat throughout the whole presentation was the 78 or so attendees of the event chimed in their congratulations and insights on the chat of the Zoom call.

Some highlights on that end came from 2019 honoree Will Gonzalez, Marilyn Diaz, and Nilda Ruiz to name a few.

Gonzalez wondered how far Judge Restrepo’s rise would take him in the U.S. court system.

“Will Judge Restrepo be the first Latino who lives in PA to be on the U.S. Supreme Court,” he wrote.

Diaz seconded Restrepo’s point in the fireside chat that his key to success was rooted in his Latino heritage, which granted him the Spanish language and knowledge of Latino culture.

“So very key — recognizing the tremendous skills we bring to the table! Our language and cultural awareness!” she wrote.

And Ruiz spoke for everyone on the call when she addressed Judge Diaz for his breaking of barriers for Latinos in law. 

“Thanks for paving the way for us,” she wrote.

His response? One for all to heed.

"Now it’s up to the next generation of Latinx lawyers to serve the community. Anyone can make money, but it all stays behind when you pass... what you do for others lives forever," he wrote.

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