A Rising Star In Law And Politics: An Interview With Marina Torres
This might be her first elected office, but I doubt it will be her last.
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On June 7, the people of Los Angeles will vote in the primary for their next City Attorney, with the top two vote-getters facing off in November. A powerful and prestigious post, the job of City Attorney involves two roles: representing the nation’s second-largest city in civil lawsuits and business transactions, and serving as the prosecutor of misdemeanor crimes. It’s a big job, overseeing an office of more than 500 lawyers, and it has been a stepping stone to higher office over the years. Los Angeles City Attorneys have gone on to serve as judges, the Los Angeles County District Attorney, and Mayor of Los Angeles.
Marina Torres is a top contender in the race. The daughter of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, she graduated from Stanford Law, worked for two leading law firms, and served in both the Obama Administration and as a federal prosecutor. Now she’s running for City Attorney, to try and give back to the city that has played such an important role in her life and the life of her family. If she ends up winning, City Attorney will be her first elected office—but I doubt it will be her last.
Earlier this month, Torres and I connected over Zoom for a wide-ranging conversation about her life, legal career, and vision for the city if elected Los Angeles City Attorney. Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.
DL: You have a remarkable story, and there’s so much to talk about, but let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your childhood and upbringing.
MT: My parents were undocumented immigrants who came to Southern California from Mexico in search of a better life. My brothers and I were born here in the United States. My dad worked in a Sunkist orange plant, and my mom worked in a chicken canning factory. We grew up struggling, really poor.
My dad died when I was around 3. My mom raised us, without much support and without legal status in this country. We always worried about her possibly getting deported.
I attended public schools, where I was lucky enough to have amazing teachers who believed in me, as well as access to honors and Advanced Placement (“AP”) classes. On top of my coursework, I worked at a Burger King to help pay the bills—including the fees for my AP tests.
I graduated from high school at 16 and went to UC Berkeley for undergrad, where I double-majored in political science and rhetoric and was active in student government. I also worked at different jobs during my college years, up to 20 hours a week, to help support my family.
DL: Did you have a sense in college that you wanted to go to law school?
MT: Law school was on my mind, but it took me a while to figure it all out. I didn’t have any lawyers in my family, and I really didn’t know many lawyers, so I didn’t know what that meant.
After college, I worked as an AmeriCorps Fellow at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, providing litigation aid to migrant farmworkers. I saw how they lived and worked, without the strong workplace protections we have today in California, and it was a powerful experience. Seeing how the law helped them vindicate their rights solidified my desire to go to law school.
DL: So you returned to the West Coast and went to Stanford Law. How did you like it?
MT: I loved it. It was challenging, but I felt well-supported. This was almost twenty years ago, and back then, people didn’t talk as much about first-generation status. But because Stanford was such a small school, it was a supportive environment. I was able to serve on the Stanford Law Review and as co-president of the Latino Law Students’ Association. I’m still very close to many of my friends from law school.
DL: What did you do after graduation? Did you think about clerking?
MT: I would have loved to have clerked, but I couldn’t afford it. My mom passed away my 3L year, and six months after she died, my youngest brother was charged with armed robbery. He was in jail awaiting trial. I had to come back to L.A.—my family needed me. So I returned and began working at Munger, Tolles & Olson.
DL: How did you like your time at Munger?
MT: It’s an incredible firm—I’m still friends with several partners—and I got great trial experience. I had my first three trials at Munger, which gave me the bug for trial work.
Then in 2008, President Obama got elected, and I wanted to be a part of that. I had always wanted to live and work in D.C. and to serve in government, but it was hard to get into the administration. I thought that being in Washington would help my chances, and at the time, Munger didn’t have a D.C. office. So I moved to Washington and started working at WilmerHale.
DL: How did you decide on WilmerHale?
MT: For my move to D.C., I worked with a recruiter, Amy Savage at Lateral Link, and she was fantastic—so knowledgeable about the Washington legal market and about transitions into and out of government. She took the time to understand what I was looking for, then steered me toward WilmerHale.
I wanted to go to a place that wouldn’t just be okay with my ultimately transitioning into government, but would even see it as a benefit and support my interest in public service. WilmerHale was perfect, given its long tradition of its lawyers going into and coming out of government. I spent around three years there, where I focused on white-collar and investigations work—which got me thinking that I might want to be a prosecutor someday.
DL: How did you transition from private practice into government?
MT: Once in D.C., it was easier to network and to get involved in politics and government. I started by fundraising for President Obama’s reelection, and after his reelection, I explored opportunities in the administration.
Eventually I connected with now-Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who hired me at the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) as a political appointee. While at DHS, I focused on issues related to DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. The program was already in place, but we worked on the renewal process for participants already in DACA, the “Dreamers.” We wanted to remove as many barriers as possible to renewal, and we reached out to different communities to make sure they understood what they needed to do for renewal.
DL: What led you to then move from DHS to the Department of Justice and service as a federal prosecutor, aka assistant U.S. attorney (“AUSA”)?
MT: I remember sitting down with Steve Bunnell, the general counsel at DHS and a fellow Stanford grad, to talk about my post-DHS career plans. At the time, I was seven to eight years out of law school, and he told me that if I was interested in being an AUSA, I should do it now.
At the time, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. was trying to recruit more diverse applicants, so I applied. It was a tough interview process. They give you a prompt, you have maybe 20 minutes to review the prompt, and then you have to deliver a videotaped opening statement. I never want to see that tape! But I did get hired.
DL: And how would you describe your six years as an AUSA, first in D.C. and then later in Los Angeles?
MT: I got excellent experience, especially trial experience—I now have more than 30 trials under my belt—and I relished the opportunity to serve the public. I’ve been able to help keep communities safe by going after some of the most dangerous threats in L.A., from firearm traffickers to violent drug cartels to white nationalists. I’ve been able to advocate for the victims of domestic violence and sex crimes. I’ve been able to fight corruption—which unfortunately has been an issue for the City Attorney’s office.
At the same time, I have worked with defense counsel to seek alternatives to incarceration where appropriate, especially for first-time offenders. Based on the experiences of family members, I have seen the impact that criminal conviction can have on someone’s life. It’s important to give offenses the weight that they deserve, no more and no less. Diversion isn’t always appropriate, but it’s worth exploring in certain cases.
DL: This brings us to the present. Why are you running for Los Angeles City Attorney?
MT: I see serving as City Attorney as a continuation of both my public service and my law and policy work over the years. My experience as a prosecutor will help me in handling criminal misdemeanors, which is where I started my prosecutorial career, and my experience as a political appointee in the Obama Administration, where I managed career lawyers, will help me in running an office of more than 500 lawyers.
DL: If elected as City Attorney, what would you focus on?
MT: Here in L.A., two big issues are homelessness and public safety, and they’re interconnected. On homelessness, I seek to end homeless encampments by prioritizing immediate and emergency shelters. We have more than enough shelter options, including hotels and motels and campgrounds, but political leaders haven’t had the courage to act. They also haven’t focused enough on drug rehabilitation and mental health services when dealing with the problem of homelessness.
On crime, it’s getting worse, and people’s faith in law enforcement and the criminal justice system is being challenged. The City Attorney needs to be someone with experience in and understanding of criminal justice issues. I have seen the justice system from the inside—as a prosecutor, and as the relative of criminal defendants—and I know it well. I’m running on a common-sense, moderate platform that reflects both my background as a prosecutor and as a family member of the incarcerated. I’m prepared to be a strong partner with law enforcement, focusing not on defunding or cutting back on policing, but on working towards better-quality policing.
I was asked the other day whether I would commit to not prosecuting nuisance or trespass crimes. I said no. If someone repeatedly trespasses onto your property, we’re going to do something about that. It’s not about locking people up and throwing away the key. But we need to recognize that it’s working-class communities that often feel the hurt when quality-of-life crimes are not prosecuted. And if I’m lucky enough to be elected as City Attorney, I intend to work hard on behalf of all Angelenos.
DL: Thank you for taking the time to chat, Marina, and good luck to you in the primary!
Disclosure: Thanks to Lateral Link, a leading legal recruiting firm, for sponsoring this post. With over a dozen offices across the country and abroad, Lateral Link specializes in placing attorneys at the most prestigious law firms and companies in the world. Managed by former practicing attorneys from top law schools and firms, Lateral Link has a tradition of hiring lawyers to execute the lateral leaps of practicing attorneys. To learn more, please visit the Lateral Link website.
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