Attorney at Law Magazine recently spoke with United States District Court of Utah Magistrate Judge Cecilia Romero who among other noteworthy accomplishments is recognized for her role in creating the Utah Minority Bar Association Diversity Pipeline Initiative that pairs attorneys from Holland & Hart with minority service and leadership scholarship students from the law schools at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University.
AALM: Can you tell us a little about your career?
CR: Before becoming a magistrate judge, I practiced employment and commercial law in both state and federal court as a partner at the law firm of Holland & Hart in the Salt Lake City office. My practice focused on the representation and defense of mid- to large- size companies involved in employment-related litigation. I litigated claims involving harassment; discrimination; wage and hour violations, non-compete agreements; breach of fiduciary duty; and breach of contract. I also had the opportunity to litigate several commercial cases.
I was made a partner at my firm and had planned to maintain my practice as a litigator until I was appointed to the federal bench.
AALM: What initially, drew you to a career in law?
CR: According to my mom, I declared my intention of becoming a lawyer when I was a young child. Of course, I have no specific memory of that, but I do remember wanting to help the people around me and to serve my community. When I was deciding what to do after earning my undergraduate degree, I narrowed the choices down between becoming a teacher or attending law school to become a lawyer. To help me decide on a chosen career, I spent a week volunteering in a classroom. Frankly, it did not go well, and I learned early on that path was not right for me. The remaining choice was a career in law.
AALM: Can you talk a bit about the Utah Minority Bar Association Diversity Pipeline initiative and your involvement?
CR: This was a project I started with Janise Macanas who is with the Utah Attorney General’s Office. For my part, I wanted to see more people of color in private practice and thought I could help with that effort. The program pairs participating attorneys from the law firm of Holland & Hart with minority scholarship students from Utah’s two law schools. These mentorships are a year in length and tend to be more encompassing than a traditional mentoring program and require active participation by the students and mentors. For example, students can expect to participate in mock arguments and interviews, receive guidance counseling, and develop their networking skills. An effort is made to individualize each mentorship to the needs of the student. As a result, we saw an increase in the number of students of color come through the interview process. In fact, one of my two current clerks, Jasmine Fierro-Maciel came through this program and landed at a firm and is now with me; my other clerk, Camila Moreno, did not go through the program but came to me from out of state but went through similar programs in her home state. Needless to say, this initiative is an amazing, and much needed program that continues to operate today through the ongoing commitment of Engels Tejada and Chelsey Davis at Holland & Hart.
AALM: That wasn’t the first time you helped create something of this nature. Can you tell us a little about Diversity and Inclusion Suite that you and your husband created while law students at S.J. Quinney?
CR: When I started law school, I was invited to participate in the law school’s academic assistant program or ASP. The program was led by Professors John Flynn and Robert Flores. Its purpose was to serve underrepresented and non-traditional students attending law school. The program was wonderful and helped me adjust to the many demands of law school. My husband, Ross Romero, and I wanted students of color to have that same experience and feel welcomed when coming into law school. We wanted to communicate the message that they are not alone, and to realize that many students of color came before them and many will continue to come after. We believed the best way to convey that message was by providing a space, the Diversity and Inclusion Suite at the law school, for students to get together. The suite is open to everyone wanting to build their education, develop friendships, and a foundation upon which to build a professional career.
AALM: When attending law school, what kind of career did you imagine attaining? How does your career differ today from those ambitions?
CR: Frankly, I never imagined I would be a partner in a private practice law firm or become a judge. It seemed so out of reach, and I didn’t know to even dream of these possibilities. But I worked hard to perform at a high level in law school, and many people helped guide me down this path. What I have learned from this experience is to dream big but be prepared to work hard for those dreams—with hard work, some helping hands, and a little luck, we can make it to any table.
AALM: We understand that you are the first Native American Magistrate Judge in the State of Utah. What does that mean to you and what challenges have you faced to get there?
CR: I am actually multi-cultural. My mother is a registered tribal member with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. I am a tribal descendent. I am also Mexican-American. My mother has always taught us our native culture, and it is a big part of who I am and how I identify. I take pride in my cultures, teaching our heritage to my children, and doing what I can to serve the community. Although communities of color still lag in all sorts of positions, that is quickly changing. So, while I may be the first in this position, I will not be the last.
AALM: Tell us about one of the most important lessons you learned from a personal or professional mentor.
CR: I had two of the most outstanding mentors that I owe for attaining my success—John Harrington and Lois Baar—two giants in our community. They helped me much more than I can adequately express. It is hard to list just “one” important lesson they taught me because there are so many. But there are two lessons they taught me that I remind myself of every day—the value of grit and not to take myself too seriously. Clients value grit or hustle and working hard can set you apart and many times can trump “smarts.” But at the end of the day, it is important to remind yourself that it’s just work. It is what we do, not who we are.
AALM: What is the most important lesson your parents taught you?
CR: Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “I have come to believe that in order to thrive, a child must have at least one adult in her life who shows her unconditional love, respect, and confidence.” For me that person is my mother, Sandra Barron. My mother raised four children on her own and overcame countless challenging circumstances and hardships. She taught me the value of hard work; the importance of family; and to be grateful for what I have, express that gratitude, and pay it forward.
AALM: What are you most proud of professionally or personally?
CR: Personally, I am most proud of my children. I have two smart, feisty kids, and I look forward to seeing the impact they will then make on the generations going forward. Professionally, I am proud of the learning experiences and opportunities I have had. It’s a privilege to sit at the tables I’ve sat at, and I know that. I don’t take it for granted.
AALM: How do you balance a professional life with a personal one?
CR: I am not sure you can always balance a professional life and a personal one. A lot of times it feels messy and unbalanced, and you just do the best you can. I have been blessed to have my mother live with me for most of my professional career. Without her, there would be no balance, period.