Employing a student intern from the Youth Law Academy (YLA) program at Oakland-based advocacy organization Centro Legal de la Raza has become a summertime tradition for Boxer & Gerson. The firm’s eighth consecutive year of participating in the program saw them play host to Oakland native Cecilia Almaraz, who shortly after completing her internship under the supervision of Boxer & Gerson Partner Maria Grasso began making plans to return for her sophomore year at UC Berkeley.
Although she is pursuing a degree there in social welfare with a minor in education, there is no doubt in Almaraz’s mind that she will become an attorney. It’s a career goal she says she stated quite clearly to her parents when still a young child, and her parents were not surprised. “They said I always wanted to prove my point,” Almaraz confides.
I wasn’t going to apply to UC Berkeley, because I didn’t think I’d make it…I finally saw how much time I had wasted in self-doubt.
Later, she considered other options but found herself returning to the idea of becoming an attorney as she progressed through the YLA, a three-year-program designed to offer young persons of color support in academics and college planning along with significant exposure to the legal field. If any shreds of doubt about her career ambitions remained, they were dispelled with the Boxer & Gerson summer internship, in which she was able to shadow and participate in a number of different activities under the mentorship of Sager.
“I had never even heard of workers’ compensation before I applied for the internship,” says Almaraz, “but Raymundo Jacquez (YLA program director) told me this would be a good fit for me. All I told him was that I wanted to go to a place where I could really learn something. By the time I got to the interview in May, I was really excited.”
Her first day, she reports, already showed her much about the life of an attorney. “It was the beginning of the month, a little slow, but Maria spent a lot of time on the phone with clients, and I got to listen in. She shared a lot of wisdom with me about how attorneys work, how she works. One of the things that impressed me over time was the way she was with clients was the same as she was with me and everyone else. The way she carried herself, the way she explained things—everything was in line morally and ethically with who she is. She struck me as how I’d like to be: kind and straightforward and a capable leader.”
The experience recalled to her that she was not always as confident as her own achievements as an honors student and active community volunteer would warrant. “I wasn’t going to apply to UC Berkeley, because I didn’t think I’d make it,” she says. “But the people at YLA encouraged me to apply, and I got in. It was difficult, but that first semester in particular, I put my head down to build a foundation for myself as a student.”
That foundation resulted in a 3.5 grade point average in a highly competitive environment, building nicely upon the 4.40 she had achieved at Lighthouse Community Charter High School in Oakland. “I finally saw how much time I had wasted in self-doubt,” she relates.
Future plans call for law school at a yet-to-be-determined location, and building upon the legal knowledge and community contacts she accrued through her internship. “Visiting the Mexican Consulate with Maria was very important for me. We went a second time to a meeting for Workers’ Rights Week, and I was in the room with different attorneys and heads of agencies. I wrote down the names and positions of all the attendees. I wanted to remember who they are.”
While paying close attention to mentors and elders and building a potential contact list of community leaders may seem more like the typical activities of a young professional in the field rather than a mere college sophomore, the maturity it reveals should hold Almaraz in good stead as she takes her next steps along her career path.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she speaks fluent Spanish and expects to make regular use of it in her work. “Being an attorney for me means giving back to my community and getting the word out to people about their rights,” she says. “It hurts my heart when I see a language barrier in my community that prevents people from even getting legal aid. My biggest fear is becoming a workaholic, but that’s another place where Maria showed me it could be done, that you can have a life outside work. I want to be that kind of whole person.”