AL DÍA Top Lawyers 2021 honors Latino lawyers who have shown excellence, determination and dedication to their communities
The fifth annual event featured six honorees within the legal field, including one who has displayed a lifetime of service as a judge.
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AL DÍA’s final event of the year was a continuation of a decades-long mission.
The fifth annual AL DÍA Top Lawyers Forum on Dec. 15, highlighted six of the most esteemed legal professionals of Hispanic and Latino descent, who have displayed tremendous excellence in their respective areas.
Those areas were nonprofit, small firm, mid-large firm, in-house counsel, and government.
During the last couple of years unlike any other, 2021 simply shone a brighter light on the struggle and subsequent perseverance of the nation’s Latino community, with a direct emphasis on the Latino legal community.
James Faunes, part of the advisory board and emcee for the event, praised that very component.
“Our population and culture is very well placed to deal with and succeed within the confines of this current struggle,” he said.
“And the dedication to community and work is well reflected in our honorees here today.”
The 2021 AL DÍA Top Lawyer honorees were: were Kathy Gomez, deputy director of legal practice for Community Legal Services (CLS); Henri Marcial, principal at Marcial & Haye; Lorena Ahumada, counsel and employment compliance at Kleinbard, LLC; Alex Gonzalez, vice president, general counsel & corporate secretary at Braven Environmental; and Maria Carrillo, assistant United States Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice; and The Honorable Judge Teresa Sarmina, former judge of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.
During their respective acceptance speeches, each of them expressed much appreciation and gratitude for the honor. However, more importantly, they shared the value of having Latinos in the legal field who are able to effectively address the challenges of the Latino community.
Gomez, who grew up in a low-income community in New York City, saw her family and neighbors struggle with predatory lending, financial scams, foreclosures, discrimination, wage theft and more.
She saw her loved ones not know where to turn for help; their attempts to seek justice marred by misinformation, language barriers, and fear of their immigration status being used against them.
“My experiences growing up led me to a career in public interest law and Community Legal Services to push for meaningful, equal access to justice,” said Gomez.
At CLS, the mission is to fight poverty and challenge systems that perpetuate injustice.
“We engage in community education, high impact litigation, and systemic advocacy, to change laws and policies to disrupt what is happening,” she added, noting that the organization helps more than 10,000 people each year.
The mission of helping those in the city was shared by Gonzalez.
“I’ve come to learn that [Philadelphia lawyers] means giving back and helping our neighbors and our communities,” he said. “It means working hard towards ensuring that those in need have representation of access and opportunity under the law; it means treating others with kindness, dignity, respect; it means endeavoring towards what is fair, just; it means sacrifice for the benefit of others.”
“Those are the things I’ve come to adopt as part of what it means to be a Philadelphia lawyer,” he added.
For Carrillo, she has also been diligent in paying it forward.
She thanked her parents for giving her the gift of a second language and instilling in her a love for the country that is the United States.
“I live the American dream because of their sacrifices and because of the greatness of this country,” she said. “And through public service, I have learned to pay it forward.”
“Through my public service, I have seen that there needed to be fair-minded people in the criminal justice system, people who advocate from our community, so I decided to serve as a prosecutor.
She has been a prosecutor for over two decades, and calls it “the greatest privilege of life to serve my community in this way.”
In addition to the five honorees, a sixth legal professional was awarded the “2021 Lifetime Achievement Award.”
The Honorable Judge Teresa Sarmina served 22 years as a judge of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.
Her decision to become a judge was sparked by disappointment in some of the judges presiding over many trials in which she was a part of, as well as her desire to do a better job.
“I always had a very strong sense of justice, and from my perspective, they didn't care about that,” she said.
After working as an assistant attorney, at the DHS Office and then at the Attorney General’s Office, Sarmina began taking steps to becoming a trial judge.
An introvert at heart, while figuring out how to run for election to become a judge “was an entire job,” Sarmina remained focused and determined.
“You have to push yourself and really network and follow up and follow up again,” she said. “Not easy things for me, but somehow, ultimately, it worked out.”
From the start, she was assigned to the criminal trial division - an area she was already familiar with - and quickly developed a solid and respected reputation: tough, but also very fair.
She then moved to the homicide unit.
As she reflected on her decorated career, Sarmina thinks about the lack of mentors she had as she was navigating the early part of her professional journey.
It is for that reason that she is always happy to speak with anyone who is looking to enter or advance in the legal profession.
“There are so many times we don’t even know what we don’t know,” said Sarmina. “A mentor can save so much time trying to figure it all out on your own.”
As a piece of advice for those who have an interest in the field, she advised them not to give themselves a “no.”
“There will be plenty who tell you [no], but don’t you be the one to do it,” she said.