Beating the Odds

I consider myself extremely lucky. I was born in Compton in the 1950s as one of five children. My father had several strokes – and a debilitating one when I was 4 years old. Despite the health risks involved, he worked on the railroad daily with his pick and shovel. I will always admire and respect him for supporting his family at all costs.

After the second stroke, my dad was declared disabled and received $108 a month in disability pay. My resourceful mom fed a family of seven and paid the bills. Recently, I assisted my mom when she was gravely ill. I found a second mortgage on the house. She never mentioned it but used it to help us make it. One by one, the older kids dropped out of school to support the family. My dad died in 1969. That left a hole in my heart for years.

In August 1965, the Watts riots happened in California. The riots were a spontaneous, desperate combustion about the African American community being unseen and uncared for. But in 1965, I couldn’t conceptualize it. I just knew I was afraid. I also lost my best friend in that my library was burned to the ground. As a young person, when I was reading, I got so involved in the book and the stories that I forgot that I was cold or hot or hungry or ill. Books kept me going. I felt like I lost my best friend that day.

As a result of the riots, money started coming into our community. I was a fairly good student because I realized that education was my best chance for a better life. In middle school, I had an opportunity to participate in a program called Project Open Future. The program identified underprivileged talented and gifted students in the Los Angeles area to provide educational enrichment. I could spend five weeks every summer at Santa Barbara-area boarding schools with volunteer teachers and students from private schools.

The second summer I was placed in a school called Midland. A teacher there thought I could be competitive in the English classes he taught and encouraged me to apply as a student at that school. Three weeks later, my life changed irrevocably for the better. I had catching up to do, but I excelled and worked hard. I was told that I could go to any school based on my academic record. I chose to go to a southern California school to be closer to home.

I went in with a great deal of confidence and did well in college. I was a psychology major, but after three years, I realized that I didn’t want to study that anymore. The placement officer asked if I’d thought about law. I said no, I had never really considered it. She told me that lawyers counsel and help people with their lives and their issues. I thought, I don’t know that I want to study law. She connected me to the Dean of Students from Willamette College of Law. We clicked. I admired him because of his intelligence, his conversational skills, and his humanity. We talked about Oregon and how Oregon schools were looking to increase their diversity. I remember asking him a couple of things. I said that I would really miss the beaches. He said they had beautiful beaches in Oregon. He failed to mention that they are freezing. I also asked about the weather. It happened to be raining outside at the time. He said the weather was very similar to here.

I was accepted and came to Oregon, but unlike in California, I was the only Latino student in the whole school. I thought maybe I had made a huge mistake. The Hispanic population was concentrated in rural areas, and I felt really isolated and out of place.

One day, I saw a fellow who looked like he was a few years older than me and looked like he might be Hispanic. I introduced myself. He was, in fact, Hispanic and was working for legal aid. I instantly had a mentor. Up until then, I had never even spoken to a lawyer. We are friends to this day. He was a big source of inspiration to me to stick it out and to figure out what I wanted to do and do it.

I was fairly young when I graduated from law school at 24 and felt immature. I couldn’t imagine advising people about their lives. So I took an administrative job for a few years, after which I felt it was time for me to learn the trade. I wanted to work as a public defender to learn to try cases. There were a few other Hispanics when I got sworn in. I got accepted to work at the Public Defender’s office. Despite the fact that the first day was a total train wreck, my wife encouraged me to go back to work.

Gradually, things started improving. I had my first trial 90 days after starting the job. I was really nervous that I might be discounted as a lawyer because I was a minority. But I could tell the jurors were thinking, if this guy is a minority lawyer, he really has something on the ball. I thought I had really found my professional home.

Several years later my wife and I opened our own firm to the Latino community. I talked about my dream to friends, who thought I was crazy, believing that the Latino community wouldn’t have resources to hire lawyers. Fortunately, they were wrong, and together we had a flow of gratifying cases. My wife practiced personal injury law, while I did public defender work. One of the wonderful things about being a niche lawyer in Oregon is that people get to know you and your reputation and refer cases to you. We had a successful practice for 25 years.

One day a judge asked me if I had ever thought about being a judge. He talked about how gratifying it was to do a lot of good and exercise your intellectual capability to the fullest. Because my wife and I were doing so well in our practice and had three little kids we needed to put through school, I didn’t feel I could go down that path at that time. But I never lost sight of the possible dream.

Then I got a call of encouragement from the governor’s office. They told me that the governor was interested in talking to me. So I put in an application and was vetted. My letters of recommendation included a prosecutor and a former client who was a convicted felon. When I interviewed with the governor he said, “well, judge, what do you want to talk about?” It was a very emotional moment for me, knowing that something I had dreamed about had come to fruition.

I have loved every minute of it. It’s an incredible calling. I see people from every walk of life. I see gifted lawyers. I see struggling lawyers. But we all see hope. No matter what the situation is, there is always hope. I had the opportunity to be a drug court judge for a few years. I saw the impact of despair and struggle on people’s lives. I had the chance to make an impact on people. People still come up to me and tell me how they’re doing.

I also love this job because it keeps me sharp mentally. It’s like visiting a river. It’s never the same two days in a row. The day doesn’t necessarily turn out how you thought, but it’s always interesting. My judicial philosophy is to make decisions that will enable me to sleep at night.

My advice to others is to live life with your eyes and ears open. Opportunity will come to you that you won’t necessarily recognize as opportunity unless you are fully engaged. Don’t think that your career will be a straight line. It will take twists and turns. But always be true to yourself. Always treat your adversaries with respect. Always work as hard as you possibly can and know that your preparation on this case is also preparation for the case after that and the case after that. Your reputation is the sum total of everything you’ve ever done. Make sure that when you look back, you’re proud of what you see.

In addition to the previous paragraph, I offer some tips for younger lawyers just starting out:

  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions of your colleagues.
  • Join a specialty bar that offers CLEs in your area of practice.
  • Do some community service outside the law to keep a sense of balance.
  • Make time for your family and friends.

The Honorable Angel Lopez

Multnomah County Circuit Court