Seeing is Believing
Equity partner, Dentons
Sulema Medrano '09 is paving the way for the next generation.
Editor's note: this is a story from the the Fall 2023 Chicago-Kent Magazine. To read the magazine in full, follow this link.
“I am truly a public interest attorney at heart. As a child, I wanted to become a lawyer to advocate for those who could not advocate for themselves. I had zero exposure to law firm life before attending law school. I did not see myself practicing as a partner in big law,” says Sulema Medrano ’09.
But that’s exactly where she ended up.
Medrano is an equity partner at Dentons, the largest law firm in the world, where she focuses her practice in complex commercial and insurance litigation. She recently transitioned her practice from Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, where she was also an equity partner. Medrano started her career in private practice at SmithAmundsen.
Medrano didn’t start in big law. Her first gig was as an assistant state’s attorney in the Appeals and Domestic Violence divisions at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in Chicago. Medrano attributes much of current success to the skill set she developed as an ASA.
“Starting my career as a prosecutor and appellate lawyer couldn’t have teed me up better. My first assignment in appeals was an amazing opportunity. While preparing briefs, I read the trial transcripts of some of the best lawyers out there, true American heroes,” she says. “When I think about my career and the cases that have impacted me the most, I always return to my days as an ASA. Having the privilege of advocating for victims of crime shaped me as a lawyer and as a person.”
While she eventually moved into private practice, Medrano has never lost sight of the reason she became a lawyer.
“Staying involved in pro bono and community initiatives is what continues to drive my passion as a lawyer. We have the knowledge, skill set, and access to resources to make a positive change for others, and it is our responsibility to do so,” she says.
Medrano has helped lead and organize a number of pro bono and community initiatives during her time serving the Hispanic National Bar Association in her role as regional president and chair of the Latina Commission, as well as her role on the Board of Directors for the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois.
During that time, Medrano worked closely with fellow Chicago-Kent College of Law alum Juan Morado Jr. ’07, who was serving as president of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois.
“It’s not uncommon for people like myself or Sulema to be the only folks in a room that look like us,” he says. “She, like myself, very often feels like we’re just incredibly lucky to be here. What we want to be able to do is to reach back and to help out folks so they can get here as well.”
Hispanic women make up less than .9 percent of equity partners in large law firms in the United States, and Medrano is one of them. She now works vigorously to build the pipeline and pave the path for other Latina lawyers.
“Like a good friend of mine says, ‘You’ve got to see it to believe it.’ Before attending law school, I had never met a lawyer who looked like me. But once I did, it was ground-breaking,” she says. “It’s empowering and inspiring to see women you identify with in positions that you aspire to one day reach. I try to share my story at every opportunity, hoping someone will find my journey encouraging.”
Medrano’s passion for education resulted in her being tapped by former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to serve on the Chicago School Board last year. While she no longer serves on the board, she still feels a responsibility to help build the educational pipeline for future lawyers and professionals.
“I’m a first-generation college graduate. I was able to mobilize myself economically through education and I want other diverse women to know they can too,” she says. “But we first have to open the door and give them an opportunity to succeed.”
Medrano emphasized the important role that her mentors played over the years in her career and professional development.
She is particularly grateful for her time on the Chicago-Kent trial advocacy team. She credits the program, and the influence of former Judge David Erickson, who directs the trial advocacy program, with teaching her the skills and confidence she needed to succeed.
“I try to tell him at every stage of my career—thank you,” she says. “Since stepping down from the bench, he has dedicated so much of his life to the program and has influenced the careers of so many.”
Medrano spent several years after graduating law school supporting the Chicago-Kent Trial Advocacy program as a volunteer coach. She continues to be an active member of the Chicago-Kent trial advocacy alumni group.
“God forbid if something ever happens and I’m on the trial for my life, Sulema is the lawyer that I want representing me,” says Morado. “She’s, bar none, an incredible litigator. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her.”