Though Jessica Valenzuela Santamaria only knew of lawyers from what she saw on TV and read in her father’s true-crime novels, she was certain she felt a passion for justice and wanted to make a career out of pursuing it
“My parents will tell you from the time I could talk I always had a healthy sense of skepticism,” says Jessica Valenzuela Santamaria, partner at Cooley LLP. Willing to question things and demand evidence or proof, Valenzuela Santamaria’s always had a personality and mind-set that’s suited to litigation. By the time she was 12, Valenzuela Santamaria knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She grew up in a Latino household, and, as the only daughter out of five children, she was expected to fulfill a traditional female role, just like her mother and her grandmothers. But Valenzuela Santamaria knew she didn’t want that for herself.
In high school she was paired with a mentor who introduced her to the real world of law at the Ventura County District Attorney’s office. Through that mentorship program, Valenzuela Santamaria was offered a summer job at the District Attorney’s Office when she returned home from Stanford University, where she attended college. Valenzuela Santamaria saw how, day in and day out, the lawyers with whom she worked were exposed to so many of the negative aspects of society. It was a learning experience that proved to Valenzuela Santamaria that she didn’t want to practice criminal law.
Mentor for a Minute
“Always try your hardest, and do your best. Communicate clearly. Understand what your audience wants, whether it is your client, your boss, opposing counsel, or the judge. Prioritize and only worry about things that need to be worried about immediately.”
—Jessica Valenzuela Santamaria
After her first year at Stanford Law School, she was hired as a law clerk at McManis Faulkner & Morgan, a boutique litigation firm in San Jose, California. She worked there part-time during law school to help finance her education and continued there as an associate attorney for three years after graduation. Given the ability to manage her own cases and have significant client contact from the get-go, she learned essential litigation skills from an early point in her career. In her first three years as a lawyer, Valenzuela Santamaria had exposure to a number of different aspects of litigation. She took and defended depositions, presented oral arguments in appellate courts, argued substantive motions, and was generally responsible for all aspects of her cases—an unheard of amount of responsibility for a new lawyer.
Valenzuela Santamaria says it’s a bit ironic that she ended up at Cooley because she never thought she wanted to practice at a big firm. “I had heard horror stories that associates at big firms would do nothing but document review for years and never get inside a courtroom,” she recalls. “I was afraid of being viewed as a commodity.” But after several years with the smaller firm, she felt the need for a change. She wanted to work on matters with a broader geographic scope that dealt with cutting-edge legal issues impacting the greater Silicon Valley business community, which a larger firm could offer.
Since joining Cooley LLP in 2005, Valenzuela Santamaria’s commercial litigation practice has been focused on defending companies and their directors and officers in securities class actions and litigation related to corporate governance issues, mergers, and acquisitions and proxy-related matters. As a partner, Valenzuela Santamaria now has greater opportunities to play an advisory role for some of the Valley’s most important publicly traded companies. She particularly enjoys being able to advise companies to mitigate risk before a lawsuit has been filed.
“I like the intellectual aspects of my work and dealing with problems that require creative solutions,” she explains. “A lot of our clients are on the cutting edge of technology and are coming up with new ideas that the law often hasn’t caught up with.” One of the reasons she wanted to practice litigation at a firm that represents Silicon Valley companies was so she could contribute to the expansion of the law, rather than simply applying existing law to recurring problems.
When she’s not in court, Valenzuela Santamaria’s greatest passion is her family, especially her two sons Elias, eight, and Lucas, five. “Growing up with all brothers, raising boys feels very natural for me,” she says. She is also firmly dedicated to increasing diversity in the legal profession and spends a significant amount of her time out of the office working with organizations that share her goal. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Santa Clara La Raza Lawyers’ Charitable Foundation, the Hispanic National Bar Association, and Cooley’s diversity committee, she feels it is her responsibility to promote minorities in her profession and be a visible example that Hispanics can excel at the highest levels.