Providing peace within the storm

(This story originally appeared in Lawyer, Fall 2018.)

Veronica QuinonezFamily law attorney Verónica Quiñónez '11 strongly believes she has a duty to advocate for those who lack the power and resources to do so for themselves.

That principle was seared into her consciousness as an adolescent growing up in El Paso, Texas, when a caretaker physically abused her beloved grandfather, most likely causing him to have a heart attack. Because health problems limited his ability to communicate this mistreatment, the woman was not held responsible for his subsequent death. Later, while studying at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP), Quiñónez worked closely with victims of crime, including survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, as a volunteer for the local police department. She witnessed firsthand their often lonely struggle with the lingering effects of such trauma.

In both cases, Quiñónez saw an enormous need for advocates who could work with vulnerable people to ensure they received justice, and law school seemed the logical path for someone with her ambition to proactively help others.

Now in her fifth year of solo practice, Quiñónez has made good on her promise to herself to assist those most in need. In fact, working on a pro bono basis on behalf of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, she recently helped to gain the freedom of a Honduran woman who was detained at the Mexican border and had been incarcerated in Tacoma, while her 13-year-old son was separated from her and sent to a detention facility in New York. Although Quiñónez doesn't normally take immigration cases, she felt a strong urge, as a mother, to do everything possible to right this injustice.

"I am extremely passionate about this work. People often ask, 'Don't you get burned out? Is it too emotional?' My response is that it is tremendously gratifying to help people who are in these difficult situations. I try to provide a sense of peace within the storm that is raging through their personal lives at that moment," she said.

Quiñónez, who learned about Seattle U Law through a UTEP program, identified with its strong commitment to advancing social justice. As graduation from law school neared, she thought deeply about her future in the legal profession. Despite financial pressures, including a growing family to support and substantial student loans to repay, it was imperative for her to build a career that was true to her initial motivations to become a lawyer.

"My experience at Seattle U Law taught me to think about clients who need help and situations that need to be remedied, and not just about money," she said. "Working in the clinics as a law student, I learned how to effectively represent people and make their lives better."

Quiñónez also had to decide where to practice. Although her family was back in Texas, she felt called to represent the underserved Spanish-speaking community in Seattle and the surrounding area. "I knew I could make the biggest difference here since there are few lawyers who are fluent in Spanish," she said. 

After passing the bar exam, and with just $300 in the bank, Quiñónez launched her own family law practice in the Seattle area. "It was definitely one of the scariest things I have ever done," she recalled. She handles custody disputes and civil protection orders for domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as adoption cases, taking pride in helping individuals and families who have few resources to advocate for themselves.

"The first year was tough. Trying to learn how to run a business was the most difficult part, and without the support of my husband and daughter, it would have been almost impossible," Quiñónez said. Though she was committed to serving clients of moderate means by working at low-bono rates when needed, at times it was hard to earn enough to cover expenses. But she was able to lean on mentors, who offered support and encouragement.

"I knew Veronica could learn the law to be successful, she just needed a little help in building confidence that all the hard work and sacrifice would eventually pay off," said Chach Duarte White '00, a staff attorney with Legal Counsel for Youth and Children and mentor to Quiñónez. 

By the second year in practice, Quiñónez was receiving consistent referrals from several sources - including the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington (she is currently its president) and the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. Now in her fifth year, the practice continues to grow. She's leasing office space for the first time and hopes to add a second attorney in future years. Most importantly, she has kept true to her commitment to serving the Latino community, which makes up more than half of her client base. 

Quiñónez realizes many more Spanish-speaking advocates are needed in the Puget Sound region. That's one reason she makes regular trips to her alma mater in El Paso on behalf of the law school, where she extols its many attributes to pre-law students. As a result, a steady stream of UTEP students have followed the path she has blazed to Seattle.

"It is important to me that UTEP students and fellow El Pasoans attend a law school that supports them, provides a positive experience, and allows them to grow into compassionate and ethical attorneys," she said.