Published: Nov. 15, 2019
Vanessa Cortez

As an incoming law student, Vanessa Cortez ('20) didn’t have many connections to the legal profession. She didn’t grow up with lawyers in her family or have opportunities to meet many before law school. Connections made at Colorado Law and beyond helped Cortez grow her support network and advance toward her goal of helping Coloradans in need.

As a first-generation law student, opening the door to opportunities in the field hasn’t been easy. At professional events, Cortez is often the only Latina. She still hears offensive terminology used against minorities within the occupation. These are daily experiences for students of color, both inside and outside of the legal profession, she said. "It feels like a fight all the time to make space in this profession as a student of color," Cortez said.

Cortez earned a BS in sociology from Colorado State University-Pueblo in 2017. It was during her time as an undergraduate student that she found a passion for law and public service. She came to law school to learn the necessary skills to assist low-income communities, people of color, and communities that typically have less access to legal services.

A Colorado native, Cortez always knew she wanted to remain close to the community where she was born and raised. By choosing Colorado Law to obtain her JD, Cortez was able to stay close to her family while building professional connections in the community to which she would later give back.

"I’ve been able to connect with different communities in ways I wouldn't be able without a legal degree or legal education."

An externship Cortez completed last summer at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Office for Civil Rights in Denver solidified her interest in public service.

Working alongside lawyers on cases of civil rights in the education system, Cortez supported students, teachers, parents, and administrators in the education system to give them access to legal protections, such as the ability to file a complaint about civil rights violations.

"I’ve been able to connect with different communities in ways I wouldn't be able without a legal degree or legal education," Cortez said.

Externships allow law students to earn academic credit while performing legal work at government agencies or nonprofit organizations. Last spring, about 75 students participated in externships. This semester, there is a record-high of 103 students completing externships at organizations such as the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, the Boulder District Attorney’s Office, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Externships give students an opportunity to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in a real-world legal setting," said Emily Horowitz, Schaden Director of Experiential Learning and Public Service Programs at Colorado Law. She oversees Colorado Law’s externship program.

In many cases, including Cortez’s, externships show students the extent to which an attorney can make a positive and powerful impact on people’s lives. The face-to-face interactions Cortez experienced at her externship humanized her view of legal work, she said. After completing the program, she knows not only how to help people in communities with less access to legal protection, but also how much it matters.

Back in Boulder, connections made at Colorado Law have been instrumental in helping Cortez achieve her professional goals. In particular, Cortez said that Horowitz supported her on both an academic and personal level. Horowitz not only facilitated her externship, but also visited her onsite at the DOE and connected with the lawyers Cortez was working with. On top of these efforts, Horowitz invited Cortez to speak at the Law Alumni Board after the completion of her externship to discuss her experience.

"She makes room for me at the table where there's never been room for someone like me," Cortez said.

Cortez’s support network extends outside of the law school as well. She mentors minority and low-income undergraduates who are interested in law through the Law School...Yes We Can program. She volunteered at the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, which provides tutoring, among other forms of social, emotional, and academic support, to children of low-income communities. Last year, she was vice president of Colorado Law’s LatinX Law Students Association, which works to build community for underrepresented law students.

Her supervisor at the DOE, Angela Martinez-Gonzalez ('89), also became a valuable mentor and connection for Cortez. "[Vanessa’s] passion for wanting to make a difference and serve the public was evident immediately," she said.

"While all of my supervisors have been great, this was just a special connection," Cortez said.

Cortez’s future is bright. She has accepted a postgraduate position at the Law Office of Michael L. Garcia in Pueblo, Colorado, where she will work on criminal defense, dependency, neglect, and other family law matters alongside Michael Garcia ('95), another mentor of Cortez’s.

"He is another personal and professional mentor who has helped me learn, grow, and to get to where I am today," Cortez said. She hopes to integrate civil rights work into her practice and work on immigration cases pro bono.

Horowitz said she has no doubt Cortez will go on to do incredibly meaningful work. Despite the challenges she’s faced as an underrepresented student, Cortez has thrived at Colorado Law and hopes to make a difference for underrepresented communities in Colorado.

"I am confident that Vanessa will continue to vigilantly work to ensure equity and protect civil rights in her life's work," Martinez-Gonzalez added.