Diego Cartagena ’03 reflects on a legal career of purpose in the public interest

October 12, 2023
Diego Cartagena

“Remember that, as an attorney, you have incredible potential to make meaningful change in the lives of those around you,” says Diego Cartagena ’03, a proud double Bruin and the president and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services.

Bet Tzedek, among the nation’s leading providers of pro bono legal services, is Cartagena’s most recent stop in a career dedicated to increasing access to justice for people in underserved communities. Cartagena has worked at the firm since 2012. In 2020, he succeeded fellow UCLA Law alum Jessie Kornberg ’07 in the organization’s top post.

Cartagena, who was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the United States when he was 2 years old, says that he is deeply grateful to be the first person of color to lead Bet Tzedek. “It is also a reflection of an important truth,” he says. “Bet Tzedek has, since it opened its doors, served a diverse set of community members who reflect Los Angeles.”

But he didn’t get there alone. Thanks to his participation in the Law Fellows Program and Critical Race Studies program, among other activities that he undertook at the law school, Cartagena says that he learned “the foundation for understanding how the law impacts people.” That’s why he remains connected to the UCLA Law community by serving as a mentor and guest lecturer.

Here, we talk with Cartagena about his legal career, his perspective on legal counsel and how UCLA Law gave him the tools he needed to succeed.

Tell us about your role as the head of Bet Tzedek, and why the organization matters.

I set the strategic direction of the organization and ensure that it is consistently pursuing its goal of ensuring access to justice on behalf of low-income individuals throughout Los Angeles County. I do this by working with a diverse team of advocates — including professionals such as attorneys, social workers and community outreach workers — that deploy a diverse advocacy strategy that includes direct client representation, outreach and education, and policy advocacy efforts. I also work with an expert fundraising team to raise awareness of our efforts among the philanthropic community in order to increase support for this work.

What does it mean to you to be the first person of color to lead Bet Tzedek?

It’s a unique and incredible honor. It is part of the ethos of the organization, one informed by its Jewish roots. Our board of directors insisted that the organization is and will always be here to serve all individuals, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or immigration status. It is a product of various core tenets, including the concept of not turning away a stranger from a strange land. It only makes sense that as the population in our city and county continues to grow in diversity, our client base has also grown. In this way, my installation as CEO is a reflection of this reality.

How can law students best prepare for an impactful career in public interest law?

The best piece of advice I can give is to intern or volunteer with as many organizations as possible. You are at a unique moment in time in your professional trajectory when you can help in many different ways, whether that is helping serve survivors of domestic violence, defending tenants facing eviction or helping undocumented immigrants remain in the U.S. This will help you determine what speaks most clearly to you, it will help you gain the practical knowledge of the need in the community for designing a postgraduate fellowship, and it will help you build your professional network.

How did UCLA Law help you get to where you are now?

Having the privilege of going through the Critical Race Theory specialization has been vital to my current job. It provided me with the foundation for understanding how the law impacts people, particularly people of color, and helped me start to develop a road map for how to try and change the status quo for the benefit of our clients. The knowledge and information I gained there was invaluable.

You participated in UCLA’s trailblazing Law Fellows Program before you started law school. How has that experience informed your work since then?

My experience with the Law Fellows Program was life changing. Being the first person in my family to go to college here in the U.S. and the first person to apply for law school, I did not have family resources to rely on when it came to completing my applications, drafting a personal statement, et cetera. I also had no idea what law school might be like, despite knowing, deep inside, that it was the right next step for me. The Law Fellows Program gave me the resources to achieve this goal. The Saturday academies provided critical resources like practical tips for completing the application. I was afforded access to LSAT prep courses. I was also exposed to mock law school classes. These were all critical to my being able to attend law school.

What words of wisdom can you share with members of the law school’s new class?

As clichéd as it may sound, it is important to keep in mind the importance of networking. The folks you work with may be clients in the future if you work at a law firm, colleagues you work with at a firm or as in-house counsel, or, if you are working at a nonprofit, your partners in the effort to correct a historic systemic wrong. Keep this in mind as you move forward. It’s also important to remember that most of the people who truly need your help will not be able to afford to pay for your incredible talents, but that they face some of the most important issues an individual can face: whether they will have a roof over their head, whether they will be able to have contact with their children and many other critical, life-changing issues. Set aside some time and energy to help these people access the justice system. Your life will be richer and better for it.

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