Lilian Lopez, a 2014 summer legal intern for Boxer & Gerson under the auspices of Centro Legal de la Raza’s Youth Law Academy (YLA), is headed to law school next fall at the University of California, Davis. This notable achievement is further enhanced by her status as the first graduate of the YLA program ever to enroll in law school.
Lopez spent the summer between her junior and senior years in high school working under the tutelage of Boxer & Gerson Partner Maria Grasso, whom she often shadowed during client meetings, depositions, court appearances, and all other facets of an attorney’s typical workday.
“It was the first real exposure I had to the legal field,” Lopez says. “I got to see how she organizes her day, prepares to present cases, and actually gets work done in a very busy setting. It impressed me how organized and on top of everything she is. I really learned a lot from her, and having that experience on my resume served as the gateway to other legal opportunities.”
Lopez had originally planned to go directly to law school following her graduation from UC Davis with a double major bachelor’s degree in political science and Spanish. But a chance to study abroad between her junior and senior years won out over the time necessary to study and take the Law School Admissions Test, so she put law school off for a year.
By the following year, she had secured a position as an assistant paralegal with the San Francisco law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP, where she works on immigration cases for corporate clients looking to bring highly skilled employees into the U.S. on work visas. That two-year stint will be coming to an end this summer, and Lopez has zero regrets about again having delayed her law school matriculation in exchange for it.
“Putting off law school wasn’t what I intended but I’m glad it worked out this way,” she says. “It gave me an opportunity to travel and then immerse myself in the legal field. It also taught me how to draft and prepare cases for attorneys—and how to deal with difficult people who are under a lot of stress. It really showed me the importance of customer service.”
Lopez was alerted to Centro de Legal de la Raza’s Youth Law Academy when a friend of her mother’s who knew of the organization and its legal internship program advised her mother, “You should tell your daughter about this.” Her mother promptly did, both she and her friend knowing that Lilian had decided with great and lasting resolve back in the fifth grade to pursue the law during a career day presentation by her teacher.
“I never really considered any other profession,” she says. “What I like is that you get to represent someone else to the best of your ability. It gives you a platform to help people who can’t help themselves.”
Having worked on the corporate side of the law, Lopez is grateful for the experience but admits, “My heart is in public service.” She hopes to pursue legal work along those lines three years hence, while also facing the reality that working in the lower-paying public sector makes repaying the student loans she will be accruing through her law school tenure more of a challenge.
The subject gives her pause, in light of the often staggering debt load today’s professional school students face upon graduation.
It has her already considering a variety of approaches to expeditiously pay off her future law school debt while also tending to her deepest career desires. But all those deliberations and decisions still await.
Their mere appearance in Lilian Lopez’s life reveals the thoughtful person she is. That practical bent combined with her desire to serve others should in turn serve her very well in the legal career that her life seems tailor-made to pursue.
About Centro Legal de la Raza
Oakland-based Centro Legal de la Raza was founded in 1969 as a non-profit comprehensive legal services agency protecting and advancing the rights of immigrant, low-income, and Latino communities through bilingual legal representation, education, and advocacy. It’s Youth Law Academy is a three-year program students enter as high school sophomores, with the goal of introducing them to the legal profession, building confidence and peer support, and helping to guide their path to the empowerment provided by a college education.
YLA members receive a free SAT preparation course, college and financial aid advising from various program mentors, and support as they transition to their college years.
Boxer & Gerson Partner Maria Grasso accepts responsibility to mentor an intern from the YLA program every summer. She served on Centro Legal de la Raza’s Board of Directors for seven years, three of them as chairperson, before recently transitioning to the organization’s Youth Law Academy Advisory Board.