A Call to Serve
Angel Lopez takes on the presidency of the Oregon State Bar
By Cliff Collins
Assuming the presidency of the Oregon State Bar represents something of a homecoming for Angel Lopez, who knows about firsts.
Twenty-three years ago, he became the first Latino director of the bar's affirmative action program. Now he is the first former OSB employee to become president. And above all, Lopez is the first person of color to serve as president of the Oregon State Bar.
When he and his wife and now law partner, Wendy
Squires, first came to Portland after he finished law school
in 1978, Squires remembers that 'it felt like he was
the first Mexican man here.' She says the couple first
considered setting up their practice in Hillsboro. But when
they walked downtown to check it out, a police cruiser followed
them block after block. 'Things have changed a lot,'
For Angel (pronounced AHN-hel) Lopez, that is hardly an exaggeration. Lopez, 48, now a successful criminal defense lawyer and longtime community leader, rose from the most humble of circumstances. The son of Mexican immigrants, he was born and raised in Compton, Calif., in the ghetto.
His father worked on the railroad in Los Angeles until he had a stroke when his youngest of five children, Angel, was 4 years old. Angel's brothers and sisters worked to help support the family, which had to make do on the $120 a month they got from the railroad. At one time seven family members shared the tiny, one-bedroom house.
'My father never went to school, but a friend taught him to read,' says Lopez. 'He was very smart, as is my mom. My father put into my head that education is the key to get out of this mess.' The young Angel, his family recognized, was a sharp student, and the Watts riots of 1965, which took place right near his home, had a big impact when he was 12.
'I will never forget the fear,' he says. He recalls thinking at the time, 'How do things get so bad that people want to destroy their own community?' The imposition of martial law and the convergence of hundreds of National Guard troops 'really scared me more than anything that came before that. I realized that democracy didn't exist in that community at that time. For me, that was incredibly significant; if you don't have freedom, you don't have life.'
Squires says that after the Watts riots ended, 'a lot of idealistic people came into L.A. to teach Project Open Futures. Angel, besides being an exceptional kid, was in the right place at the right time.' Lopez got nearly a full-ride scholarship, with the remaining tuition paid by one of his sisters, at a boys' boarding school in California. Suddenly he was thrust into a prep-school world of mostly students of the well-to-do. 'He made that big jump,' says Squires.
With that prep-school background, he entered and completed nearby Occidental College, immersing himself in literature and social psychology. When, in his senior year he was grappling with what direction to take after graduation, he met the associate dean of students from Willamette College of Law in Salem. 'He was really something,' Lopez thought at the time. 'Very personable, smart, someone I'd like to be like some day.' The fellow was impressed with Lopez and encouraged him to apply to Willamette.
Lopez did, the only law-school application he made, and also applied to one graduate school, at the University of Southern California. He was accepted by both, and chose Salem. But going to USC would have meant staying near home, while Willamette and Oregon seemed as far away as the moon. 'I didn't know what I was getting myself into,' he admits, noting that like a lot of Angelenos, he thought the nation consisted of 'L.A. and New York, and a road between them.'
The new law student found the Oregon country to be pristinely beautiful, but 'an incredibly white state.' He also found law school a survival crash course: 'Everything I had studied had left me unprepared. I liken law school to mental boot camp.' He decided he would have to buckle down and accept the tough conditions. His first year meant hard work, little sleep and loneliness. 'My community was 1,000 miles away. I felt very foreign.'
Things started looking up when he spotted, and talked with, a legal aid-attorney who was Latin American. 'I then knew it was possible to be Latino and a lawyer,' Lopez says. He encountered good teaching, as well, and he credits in particular a professor, Dean M. Richardson, with making each student feel special and taking time with each. When Lopez stumbled on a conflicts of law question and failed his first attempt to pass the bar examination, Richardson took him in and, 'in one afternoon, taught me the key issue. He didn't have to do that. He did it because that's who he is. That's something you never forget.'
Something else happened that Lopez would never forget: In his third year of law school, he met Wendy Squires, a native of Pocatello, Idaho, who was a year behind him in school. She remembers him as shy and socially withdrawn, someone who never pictured himself as the trial lawyer, adept public speaker and raconteur his friends know today. But he was a hit on their first date, she says, when Lopez fixed dinner for the two of them. 'He called his mom (in Compton) and asked her how to prepare green chili and refried beans.' Within a short time, Squires was won over: 'He was smart, funny and a bonus - he could cook!'
They courted for two years and got married in 1979. Lopez's first job was to administer the affirmative action program at the OSB. There, he was forced into public speaking and, according to Squires, became the extrovert he never knew he was. Lopez says: 'I had a good time working at the bar. Many of the same people are still working there. Serving on the Board of Governors (the past three years) gave me a real sense of coming home.'
In 1982, he went to work for Metropolitan Public Defender, where he tried numerous cases and gained courtroom skills. 'I really liked being a criminal defense lawyer,' Lopez says. 'I decided I was going to do that.' He next went into practice with his wife, at Community Law Office, a public interest law firm for low-income people. In 1986, the two partners established their own firm, Squires & Lopez, in downtown Portland.
Squires says the firm had to scrape by at the beginning, fixing peanut-butter sandwiches and relying on Meier & Frank, 'the only credit card that hadn't canceled us.' Lopez was doing court-appointed work: 'He would have to be in five different courtrooms at the same time. He was practicing law at a dead run. He tried a lot of cases; he was never afraid to try a case.' Then an event happened that would shape their future practice in a major way.
In a courtroom one day, a judge assigned Lopez to represent 12 Spanish-speaking defendants. 'Angel was not using Spanish when we started practicing,' explains Squires. 'He had not been using Spanish a lot. He had to take Spanish classes.' He needed to get up to speed quickly, and he did. What followed was a string of Hispanic clients, and before long, the firm gained a state contract to represent indigent clients. Squires doesn't think Lopez would have gone that direction if that judge hadn't compelled him to represent the 12 Hispanic defendants.
Squires & Lopez added associates and began to prosper, with Lopez handling criminal defense and Squires concentrating on personal injury and medical malpractice cases. And Lopez wasted no time in beginning a string of volunteer public service that he brings to the present day. His commitments have been numerous, and among many others include co-chairing the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs, serving as a member and chairman of the Multnomah County Library board of directors, and serving on the Willamette College of Law board of visitors.
According to Nan G. Waller, a juvenile court referee with Multnomah County Circuit Court, Lopez's volunteer projects 'come not out of (a desire for) career building, but from the heart, as a way to contribute to the community. He believes in public service.' Waller, who with her husband and the two couples' respective children has known Lopez and Squires for 18 years, says Lopez combines the qualities of being both a good person and a good lawyer.
'Some people make a great lawyer, but as a person they put all their energy into being a lawyer,' observes Waller. 'Angel is one of those people who is consistent in every aspect of his life,' being a fine lawyer as well as a good husband and father to his and Squires' three children, ages 17, 12 and 4. Waller adds that Lopez enjoys being a lawyer and has never lost his dedication or enthusiasm for practicing, often getting out in the field with investigators to interview witnesses, hoping he can gain information that will help him win the case.
In addition, people who work with Lopez say they 'feel part of a team, not someone working under him,' she says. 'Angel treats everybody with respect.' Waller, who once worked with Lopez at Metropolitan Public Defender, adds that she admires Lopez for being 'a very disciplined person' in both his professional and personal lives. She cites as an example his reading habits: He is currently reading all of the works of Charles Dickens, an author Lopez finds especially relevant to present times, where wealthy and poor live side by side, often invisible to one another.
Ellen F. Rosenblum, Multnomah County Circuit Court judge and secretary-elect to the American Bar Association, says Lopez will make an ideal bar president, and she sees a judgeship in his future. Recounting that she has known him since he worked for the OSB in affirmative action and that Lopez has appeared before her many times as a lawyer, she says: 'I think he would make a wonderful judge as, while he is an excellent advocate, he also has a demeanor that would be well-suited to the bench, and of course, the integrity and intelligence to be a fine judge, as well.' Rosenblum says she plans to lobby him to consider seeking such a route once his presidency ends.
At their firm, Lopez works hard
but efficiently, from 8 to 6, and rarely works weekends, making
time for his wife and children, Squires attests. 'He
puts it aside and comes home to his family. The Mexican ideal
is the father who is dad to his
children. He has all those positives. He's a really good father.'
He brings candy treats home for the kids on Fridays, and in their household, 'he's been the main cook for 20 years,' she says. 'He never uses recipes,' cooking on instinct. For the first six months of their relationship, 'all he made was Mexican food. I finally said, 'Can't you make some normal food?' He responded, 'This is normal for me!' ' She also said 'enough' to his team tennis activities after their third child was born. Lopez still enjoys jogging, getting out around his neighborhood for some peace and solitude, and Squires has gotten him to cross-country ski.
Lopez says his priorities for 2002 include focusing on: judicial independence; adequate funding for the criminal justice system; legal services for low- and moderate-income Oregonians; and lawyer discipline. During his service on the OSB Board of Governors, and for this presidential year, Lopez gradually has cut back on his practice and hired additional staff at his firm in order to devote the necessary time to his bar service.
'If I do something, I like to give it my all,' he explains. And Lopez does take pride in being 'the first person of color to lead the bar.'
Waller adds that Lopez considers being
a lawyer a privilege, and 'that's reflected in the work
he's doing for the bar. The bar is incredibly lucky to have
someone who is as committed to the justice system, and can
still be a genuinely nice person.'
For additional story, see 'Angel Lopez on the Issues'.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area free-lance writer and a frequent contributor to the OSB Bulletin.
© 2002 Cliff Collins.ar.org.