A Change is Gonna Come

It was the law or the cloth. Ernest Calderón knows he made the right choice

Published in 2007 Southwest Super Lawyers — June 2007

To Ernest Calderón, there are more important things than being a lawyer. “The title of this magazine is flattering,” he says. “But I would rather be known as a super friend or a super neighbor. I think the rest falls into place.”

The son of a Mexican-American cook and copper miner, Calderón grew up in the small mining town of Morenci, Ariz. It was the ’60s, and everything was still segregated. “I grew up knowing there was a sense of injustice there,” Calderón says, recalling that families of 10 were forced to live in small one bedroom houses. “My parents taught me it was wrong to make people live like [that].”

Calderón watched his father protest against the conditions and the segregation, as well as the lower wages for Mexican-American workers. He was itching to do his part in fighting for change.

“It was either the priesthood or the law, and the priesthood went out the window when I hit puberty,” he says with a chuckle.

At Northern Arizona University, the first-generation college student earned a degree in political science. At the University of Arizona College of Law, he was president of the student bar association. Calderón enjoyed school, but he continued to be bothered by the discrimination around him. “There were definitely professors who didn’t want us around—they thought the minority students were special admissions cases,” Calderón says.

After law school, Calderón practiced with Phoenix’s Jennings, Strouss & Salmon for more than 14 years. During that time he represented school districts and women in the workplace who, after years of service, had been cast aside for younger male employees. Calderón took many cases pro bono, which he considers a privilege.

One case involved a Navajo woman who, after being diagnosed with cancer, was encouraged by her employer to drop her health insurance coverage in favor of her husband’s more comprehensive package. The woman did as her company suggested, but there was a problem—her husband’s insurance had a pre-existing condition clause and would not cover her cancer treatments, and her company refused to put her back on its plan. Thanks to Calderón, the company reinstated the woman’s plan, paid her medical bills and paid $15,000 in damages.

“I called and told her about the $15,000 and she said, ‘How will I ever pay that money?’ She thought she owed $15,000,” he says. “I said, ‘No, this is your money.’”

Those cases are “the good ones,” he says. In 2004, he left the comfort of a big firm to open Calderón Law Offices in Phoenix, where he practices mainly in employment law and civil litigation defense and pursues more good ones. In the process, Calderón has racked up a wall-full of awards. He was named delegate to the American Bar Association, is a member of the Arizona Board of Regents and serves on the Governor’s P-20 Council on Education. His greatest professional honor came in 2002, when he became the first Hispanic president of the State Bar of Arizona.

“I think for many years minority lawyers in the state felt on the outside,” Calderón says. “I worked my way through the ranks of the bar; I helped open a dialogue between diverse groups … so they feel welcome.”

Faith Klepper, who left her job with the Maricopa County Attorney’s office to try civil cases with Calderón at his new firm, says his commitment to diversity is apparent. “He’s fought to make sure that the membership of the Arizona Bar’s board of governors is reflective of the diversity of membership, and he addresses the needs of women and minority lawyers.”

For Calderón, it goes back to the principles instilled in his youth. “There is a lot that can be done,” he says. “I just hope I can continue to be a positive influence.”

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