How a Mexican Kid from the Ghetto Winds up with Hanging with Elite Legal Minds

Many of you may or may not know, but I was born in Hawaiian Gardens, CA. It’s a one mile square barrio (in Spanish) or ghetto (in English). I grew up there, poor, but not really knowing I was poor. My cousins, who oft ran with (or were) the rough crowd, would tell me, “Go, home, Tommy. You don’t need to be here. You’re too smart.” That was code for, crap’s about to hit the fan so go home. At the time, I would get mad because in my mind we were equals and them staying made me think they were acting superior. This past weekend I attended the American Bar Association’s National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services: an invitation only event full of best legal minds on the planet plus me (I was odd man out! LOL). This fine and brilliant crowd of individuals applauded me (twice!) for some recent tech efforts. I couldn’t help but offer a silent thanks to those cousins for watching out for me in my youth and for parents who had the foresight to see a better future for me.

I left the ghetto at 12 years old. My mom and dad wanted me far away from any possible trouble, even though it broke our hearts to leave behind family and friends. We only moved 40 miles away, but I had grown up on the same property as my mom’s parents with 20 cousins within a few blocks. After we moved, we had no one nearby we knew. My dad told me on the first day of my freshman year at Notre Dame High School, “I know you don’t know anybody and are scared, but someday you will look back and remember this as a great chapter in your life. You’ll also regret any time you waste, so go in there and make the best of it starting today.” I grudgingly did and he was right. I used that same advice this past weekend. It’s odd when you introduce yourself to the person next you and they windup being a state Supreme Court Judge, Dean of a Law School, President of the German Bar Association, etc., then having to say, “Well, I’m just a techno nerd.” They were very kind though and made me feel quite welcome. I met and conversed with as many people as I could and relished every moment of the summit.

It’s been quite some time since that first day of school. I was 13 years old when I started high school, and 26 years have past since then. Life has been kind to me and placed people in my life to help me be successful. Countless friends, mentors, and loved ones have encouraged me to be the best I can be. I’ve owned a consulting company on and off for almost 20 years, taking full time jobs here and there when work is hard to find or if a job is interesting enough. I currently am well paid for what I do. I work from home and spend an enormous amount of time with my wife and kids. I have nothing to complain about, but since I’m human, I still do. A few months back, I told people “I want to do something meaningful. I want to build mobile apps that make the world a better place.” Going to the New Orleans Hackcess to Justice hackathon was an effort to do just that: make a difference. Little did I know how much more of a difference I’d be able to make *after* that special event.

The point of the summit was to get people together to think about how we can change the Legal Services world: Law School education, delivery of services, raising public awareness to their legal rights, rethinking the underlying structures, etc. I’m not one to just think though, I’m a doer as well. One particular lunch break, I found myself next to Tiffany Graves from the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. I showed her our award winning app, Legal Proof, and asked her what type of app would help her and the people she serves. She described a problem and a simple mobile solution presented itself to my mind. I explained briefly what I was thinking and she loved the idea. It’ll probably be a two week effort, but the payoff would help the 600,000 people she serves in her great state. We worked out a plan to get together in the late summer to finalize the details and  build this application. More importantly, we will be building a platform for her commission to use and to hopefully share with other such commissions across the country. All this great work because I chose to sit at her table and because the commission chose to invite us both.

In addition to the app Tiffany and I will build, I processed a lot of what the speakers said and hatched a larger idea that could radically change how we find lawyers and the potential services lawyers can offer us. That seems to be a huge problem and huge problems are ripe for innovation. Unfortunately, I haven’t had enough time to work out all the details on this idea, but I’ll shout it from the rooftops once I do.

I met so many amazing people to follow up with: Sherrilyn Ifill – President & Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (who gave the best talk at the summit, hands down), the Honorable Chad Schmucker – President of the National Judicial College (yes, a college for judges!), Holly Riccio – who extended a personal invitation to a Law Library Hackathon (Her: “We have a ton of data, come help us do something with it!” Me:”I’m so there!”), Carmen Garcia – a Latina judge from out east who invited me to visit to discuss how to help other Latino’s escape the poverty cycle, Melvin Williams, Jr. – general counsel of the SBA who invited me to use the program to continue building innovative Legal Tech tools, and so many more.

I’d like to offer a big thanks to the Andrew Perlman and the ABA for inviting me. Thanks for Jill and Molly from the ABA Journal for their support. Lastly, props to Katy, Larnetta, Sarah and others who made the summit run without a hitch!

One final anecdote: I took the PSATs my freshman year. I received some scholarship offers. A few I recognized like USC and UCLA, and a few I didn’t recognize. One made me think, “This poor school I’ve never heard of is so desperate, they’re offering me a full ride just based on my PSAT!” Years later, I picked the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. I only went for a year before dropping out. I said, “This school costs me $24K a year, surely I can make $24K a year.” I then began my path to self teaching myself to code, which got me to where I am today. That “poor school I had never heard of” was Stanford, the same place the summit was held this weekend. That’s what happens when you move from the ghetto and don’t talk to your academic advisors. Judge Garcia made me feel good though, she said, “It doesn’t matter. You made it here anyways. That’s all that counts.” I tried to catch President Hennessy but he escaped to fast. I was going to ask if there’s a Statute of Limitations or Expiration Date on that offer. It’s only been almost 30 years, but my mom still hounds me every time she sees me with, “When are you going to go back to school and get your degree?” Don’t do it for me, do it for my mom. 🙂

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