Growing up in a low-income, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx, Marihug Cedeño learned all about poverty, injustice, and the struggle for a better world. She talks about her “meager beginnings,” and as a first-generation American in a single-parent family, she was committed to making a difference—and convinced she didn’t have to become a lawyer to do it.
So she came to Cornell, where she majored in policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology, with a semester spent in Albany as a legislative intern. After that, she was eager to begin her career, and it took another three years at nonprofits and in government before she was ready to commit to the law.
“I definitely had a lot of doubts about whether law was the right path for me,” says Cedeño, who will spend her summer after graduation studying for the New York bar. “I’d always been interested in the social issues that affected communities like mine, and that is why the nonprofit and government arena seemed like a good fit for me,” says Cedeño. “However, I too questioned why people from my community lacked access to the law and why so many did not understand how the system works. It was a recurring theme, and even though law always resonated for me, I fought it as best I could, until I realized I couldn’t fight it any more.”
During a ten-month stint with the Coro Leadership Center in St. Louis, she formulated plans for corporate social responsibility at Nestlé Purina, which led to two months in Philadelphia with the Obama campaign, developing strategies for recruiting Latino volunteers, which led her back to New York City. Over the next two years at iMentor, a nonprofit that focuses on helping low-income students graduate from high school and succeed in college through mentoring, Cedeño coordinated development efforts, drafted grant proposals, and successfully lobbied city council for public funding.
That was more than enough to change her mind about grad school. Although she found her work experience fulfilling, she realized how empowering the law is. “By understanding the law and being able to give others access to it through zealous representation, I could affect many more lives,” says Cedeño. When she arrived at Cornell Law in 2010, she knew exactly what she wanted. “From the moment I got here, I knew I’d made the right decision,” she says. “Being a 1L was definitely tough, but I was eager to learn and ready for anything, because I knew Cornell was right for me and that the law was right for me. If I’d gone to another law school, I know I wouldn’t be graduating with the support, the inspiration, and the positive feelings I have now.”
Once at Cornell, she wanted to give back and take full advantage of what the school had to offer. “Many people have helped me along the way,” says Cedeño, “and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them. That is why I am committed to giving back and fully capitalizing on the opportunities before me.” After 1L year, Cedeño served as president of the Latino American Law Students Association (LALSA) and launched the first annual LALSA/BLSA Professional Development Boot Camp bringing together alumni of color and law firm recruiters to help LALSA/BLSA members prepare for the legal job market. She also presented legal arguments in moot court, defended students accused of violating the campus code of conduct, and taught constitutional law at the maximum-security Auburn Correctional Facility. Between semesters, she returned to the Bronx to work at the Sanctuary for Families Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services, where she counseled survivors of domestic violence and their children, filing petitions for custody and visitation, and advocating for pro se clients seeking orders of protection.
Last summer, as an associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York, Cedeño received her first taste of working in the litigation department of a major law firm, where she balanced her time between antitrust, complex commercial litigation, and international arbitration. She drafted a portion of a treatise on e-discovery, worked closely with an international arbitration partner on an article on harmonization of the law, and researched a number of issues for cases that were going to trial. Along the way, she found time for pro bono work on custody and visitation petitions, and finished her summer with an offer to return after graduation.
“I just want to be a great litigator, and from what I saw last summer, I know I can learn a lot from the people at Weil. They are the best at what they do and I am lucky to be there,” she says. “My journey has taught me that at heart, that’s what I am: a litigator. I love the idea of the law, the creativity of the law, the empowerment of the law. All of my experiences at nonprofits and in government brought me here, and gave me the skills I need to succeed.” Even though her path has led her to biglaw, she is confident she will never turn her back on her community. “Now with this degree,” says Cedeño, “I’m ready to go out again, become a strong advocate for my clients, stay involved in my community, and use this degree for good.”