How a Mysterious Stranger Changed Yolanda Garcia’s Life

A classroom visitor supplied the key to a college education

Published in 2009 Texas Rising Stars — April 2009

Yolanda Cornejo Garcia credits the unwavering support of her parents for her success. But there was one other person who played a huge part—she just doesn't know the woman's name.

"She came and spoke to my class when I was 9," Garcia says. "She helped change my life and I really have no idea who she is!"

Garcia, now a commercial litigator with Weil, Gotshal & Manges in Dallas, started life in an underprivileged area of Fort Worth. Neither of her parents graduated from high school, but her father Jesus and mother Concepcion encouraged Yolanda and her older sister Mary Jane to seek higher education.

"I had an incredible family structure, and who knows where I would be without it," Garcia says. But though her parents provided the support, there was still a matter of money, which is where the mysterious stranger came into play.

"I remember her saying valedictorians in Texas got to go to college for free," Garcia says, a fact that stuck with her as she worked as a file clerk at a law firm while attending Trimble Technical High School, a vocational school where she studied business skills like word processing. She worked hard and finished first in her class, then attended Rice University to study science through a combination of scholarships. Once she realized she liked writing and analyzing, she set her sights on what once would have been an impossible dream—law school, to the delight of her parents.

"They always supported whatever I did. They just were excited I was finding steady work!" Garcia says.

She attended the University of Texas law school and in her second year interviewed with Weil. Yvette Ostolaza, co-head of the firm's international complex commercial litigation group, of which Garcia is now a part, was on the selection committee that hired Garcia.

"She is absolutely brilliant," Ostolaza says. "I was there the first time she argued in front of a judge, and let's just say the other guy didn't have a chance. She is always so well-prepared."

And Garcia, in turn, credits her early opportunities at the firm with giving her valuable insight into law. She was barely out of law school when she helped her firm represent Arthur Andersen in the middle of the company's collapse. "That was a huge lesson in crisis management and the critical impact that [a] crisis has on a company," says Garcia. She has also worked with such large clients as SemGroup L.P. and Citigroup Global Markets Inc.

Garcia says she's grateful for the experiences she's had with Weil and the opportunity to work with colleagues who taught her what kind of lawyer she wanted to be.

"I [had] a wonderful example of incredible attorneys at this firm, both nationally and internationally," Garcia says. "I want[ed] to become like them and build those kind of practices for my clients."

And she wants to build a certain kind of community. Beyond the law and her family, the mother of three has made a commitment to underprivileged communities in Fort Worth and beyond.

"I have an absolute passion to make sure I harness the talent of my community," says Garcia, who speaks at schools (her sister is a vice principal and taps her at every opportunity) and serves on scholarship boards such as The Penrose Foundation, which assists Latino students. "I saw so many vibrant people in my community who never made it out," she says. "We need to find a way to have the path to success for our students."

So she delivers, admittedly to anyone who will listen, what she calls the seven-second speech, in hopes that they will remember the message even if they don't remember her name.

"I tell them the seven seconds it takes them to cross that stage and get their college diploma are seven seconds that will transform their life, the life of their family, the life of their community," Garcia says.

Garcia is doubtlessly influencing many aspiring students. In a few years they might not remember who she is, but like her own mysterious stranger, she will have helped change their lives.

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