Attorney Steven Cordero ’96 Reflects on the Journey that Brought Him to the Law

Attorney Steven Cordero ’96 Reflects on the Journey that Brought Him to the Law

Attorney Steven Cordero ’96 Reflects on the Journey that Brought Him to the Law

Looking at Steven Cordero’s ’96 successful career in the legal field, you could easily assume that he aspired to be a lawyer his entire life. But growing up in the Bronx, New York, Cordero actually had big dreams of becoming a comic book artist. “I was really good at drawing and painting,” said Cordero, a proud Puerto Rican. “When I told my parents that I wanted to become a comic book artist, they told me that I had to be constructive with my talents because there was no way that I was going to make money as an artist. So I decided to become an architect.” Attending the New York Institute of Technology from September 1990 to May 1991, Cordero was looking forward to a career in architecture. But in early 1991, when his friend was murdered and cuts were made to his financial aid, Cordero’s dreams of being an architect came to a halt.

“A lot of things happened to me in 1991. My best friend Sergio was murdered, and then New York changed the financial aid system. At the time, my parents were paying for half of my college tuition, and the other half was covered by financial aid,” said Cordero. “When the system changed, my parents could no longer afford to put me through college and pay the full tuition. The only choice I had was to get a loan.” With a loan, his parents needed to be guarantors and put their house up as collateral, something Cordero said, he would never had asked them to do. “My parents moved out of the projects when I was a baby and bought a house near Castle Hill Avenue in the Bronx. I couldn’t take that house away from them,” he said. “So in 1991, I decided to join the Army.” In the United States Army, Cordero was offered the chance to do meaningful work protecting his country as a combat engineer, and continue his education under the G.I. Bill, which provided financial assistance to help pay for college.

Cordero still had his sights set on becoming an architect, when an injury changed the trajectory of his career. “I was what is called an APC [armored personnel carrier] driver in the Army,” he said. “We were doing maintenance when I was stationed down in Korea and I had fallen off the top of a truck and became injured.” The injury caused him to temporarily lose use of his hands, and as a result he was placed on overnight guard duty. One day, while on guard duty at headquarters, Cordero, whose captain was going to law school, picked up one of his law books and discovered a world he never considered before. “I never wanted to be a lawyer,” said Cordero. “But when I was reading the law book, I became fascinated with the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a lawyer.”

“I never wanted to be a lawyer. But when I was reading the law book, I became fascinated with the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless.” —Steven Cordero

Coming to John Jay
Having already completed an associate degree while in the Army, Cordero eagerly looked forward to completing his bachelor’s degree and taking the next steps toward becoming a lawyer. While stationed in Georgia, he thought about receiving his bachelor’s degree at a university there. “Georgia had a university with a really good Pre-Law program that would help get me up and running in the field. But unfortunately, my mother came down with multiple sclerosis and she asked me to come back home,” he said, adding that the need to be closer to his mother prompted his search for undergraduate programs in New York City. “When I was looking for a Pre-Law program here in New York, I came across John Jay. They had an amazing legal studies program and I knew immediately, that this was the school for me.”

At the College, Cordero found a diverse and determined environment that offered him a chance to study with people who looked like him. “I loved being at John Jay because I loved the idea of ambitious people of color wanting to have a great future and working towards that,” Cordero said. “Being in the Army, there is this idea that we don’t see color, but I saw people who had degrading images tattooed on them. John Jay was a different experience for me and a breath of fresh air.” In this new environment, Cordero—who majored in Legal Studies—took advantage of the many opportunities John Jay had to offer. He minored in Puerto Rican Studies, learning more about his culture and the incredible achievements of Puerto Rican people. He took a speech class that to this day he credits for being beneficial in his legal career, and he took Pre-Law courses that further propelled him toward the legal field. But one of the most treasured memories Cordero has of his time at John Jay was meeting his wife Betsy Cordero ’97 (née Morales).

“I loved being at John Jay because I loved the idea of ambitious people of color wanting to have a great future and working towards that.” —Steven Cordero

“I was in student government and she was on an advisory committee where we had briefly met in a meeting, but didn’t really know each other,” he said. “One of our mutual friends from John Jay had passed away, and we both went to the memorial service. At the service, I had read a poem I had previously written for my best friend who had died years before, but that covered much of the same themes. After the ceremony, she came up to me and we started talking. When we were talking she went to a vending machine and bought a Twix bar. The next day, since she also worked at John Jay, I bought her a box of Twix bars and left it on her desk. We have been together ever since.” After marrying in 2002, they welcomed two children, a son and a daughter, who today are 14 years old, and seven years old, respectively.

Cordero with his wife Betsy on their wedding day
Cordero with his wife Betsy on their wedding day

Diversifying the Legal Field
After graduating from John Jay, Cordero went to Fordham University School of Law, where he graduated in 1999. For the first 13 years of his career as a lawyer, Cordero worked in a small firm, and even though he enjoyed his work there, he didn’t see many people that looked like him. “I was at a small law firm for 13 years with about 12 attorneys, and I was fine, and I loved being there, but there wasn’t a lot of diversity. I actually had an affinity for the support staff because I looked like them.” This lack of diversity in the legal field was something Cordero first noticed when he went to Fordham for law school. “When I went to Fordham, I saw that I was one of a handful of Latinx students there,” he said. “Latinx individuals in the professional world tend not to have a network to tie into.” Cordero points to generational wealth, or in this case, the lack of wealth minorities have to pay for higher levels of education as the reasoning for this, which results in underserved communities just working as a means to survive.

“Diversity is being invited to the party. But inclusion is being asked to dance.” —Steven Cordero

Understanding the need to diversify the legal field, Cordero, now a partner in the litigation practice group at Akerman LLP, strives to give a voice to the voiceless. Through the law firm, he is part of a networking group of Latinx attorneys and is active in hiring a more diverse range of legal professionals. Cordero is also a member of the Hispanic National Bar Association and the Puerto Rican Bar Association, which hosts conferences with Latinx attorneys and sponsor local high school students, showing them that they can make it in the legal field, because like Cordero says, Latinx individuals can provide a new perspective to many situations. “If you’re doing something about policy or talking about running an organization, and have so many people who have the same thinking and experiences, you’ll end up going in one direction without ever bringing in other voices with different experiences. And that’s the benefit of having diversity and inclusion,” he said. “Diversity is being invited to the party. But inclusion is being asked to dance. So when you’re in that situation, you have to bring in these voices and let them be part of the table and the discussion. This is what I try to do at Akerman and through these two associations.”

Giving Future Generations Hope
If you ask Cordero what he would like future generations of aspiring lawyers to know, his response is simple: Believe that you can do it. “The belief that you are able to do something starts with you. Especially in the legal field, there will always be people who will say that you can’t do it because of where you come from or who you are. But, if you set your mind on becoming a lawyer, no one will be able to stop you. And if someone tries, tell them that you are going to keep going toward your dreams,” said Cordero. “If I would have given up when my financial aid was stopped, I wouldn’t be where I am today. But I didn’t let that stop me from getting my degree. I believed that I could do it, and I did. And, I know that everyone can do it too.” This determination is something that Cordero sees in John Jay’s Pre-Law Institute (PLI). “What PLI does for their students is amazing,” he said. “They are supporting them in achieving their dreams of attending law school, providing them with resources to make the process easier, and giving them the confidence to know that they can be successful.”

“In the legal field, there will always be people who will say that you can’t do it because of where you come from or who you are. But, if you set your mind on becoming a lawyer, no one will be able to stop you.” —Steven Cordero

And for his kids, Cordero hopes they learn to never let challenges stop them from following their dreams. “The one thing I want my kids to know is to keep going even in the face of adversity. I tell them that no matter what they want to do, they’ll always have the support of their family. And this is something that I especially want my daughter to know, because not only does she have to deal with the challenges of being Latinx, but there’s also the fact that she’s a female,” he said. “I want my daughter to know that no matter how many times someone tries to knock her down or tells her ‘you can’t do something,’ that she can quickly get back up and continue walking the path toward her success.” And when all is said and done, as Cordero thinks back at his time at the College, he knows that without John Jay, the diverse environment the College provided him, and the settings that led to him meeting his wife, his life would be completely different.