Monica Maldonado

Hometown: Miami, FL
Current Job: Assistant County Attorney; Chief, Workers’ Compensation Section, Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office
Undergrad: University of Miami, B.A 1996
YLS year: J.D. 1999
Activities at YLS: Yale Law Women, Journal of Law and Feminism, Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Latino Law Students Association


What do you do? How did you get there?

I’m an Assistant County Attorney for Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade County is responsible for, among other things, the public hospital, airport, seaport, performing arts center, water and sewer facilities, parks, zoo, etc., and employs over 26,000 employees. My office does all the civil work for the County. How did I get here? It was my dream growing up to go to law school, even though I didn’t know any lawyers. Once I got to law school, I was able to try out a lot of things and carve my own path. One of the things that really motivated me to try to go off of the beaten path was my experience in a clinic. I got into a clinic my second semester, and I loved it. I loved having clients and doing hands-on work, and the fact that the clinical professors at YLS trust you so much, even though you feel as though you don’t know what you’re doing. I was in a clinic called Advocacy for People with Disabilities, taught by Steve Wizner and Carroll Lucht. I had an amazing time working with other students and handling a range of cases. I represented students with individualized educational plans, and I represented people with disabilities who were dealing with issues with the Department of Mental Retardation. One case that I had in particular involved representing the guardian of a woman with severe mental retardation. The state wanted to remove her as the guardian, even though she had been the woman’s guardian for over ten years. We had a five-day trial, and it was intense. I impeached a key witness. We prevailed, and it was great. That experience set the stage for me in terms of what I wanted to do with my career.

I also realized through that case that I took everything that was being done to my client very personally. I knew that continuing to do so would wear me out, so I needed to find a career where I could do public interest work, but not necessarily represent an individual, because I would get too emotionally involved.

My first summer of law school, I worked for the ACLU in Miami. I liked the issues that they tackled, but I realized that I didn’t like class action litigation. You don’t have a client; you’re representing people who don’t even know you’re representing them. The work involved constitutional issues and litigation that takes a long time to see the fruits of your labor. I realized that wasn’t for me.

My second summer, I worked at a law firm in Washington, DC. I began that job right after I finished my five-day clinic trial. I hated it. I couldn’t see myself leaving law school to sit in an office and do research for partners and not get any of the credit, or any of the client contact. The people there were making incredible salaries, but they were miserable.

During my third year, I was lucky enough that the County Attorney’s office came to interview, and it was everything I wanted. You’re working on behalf of the taxpayers of the county. You have clients, you have responsibility right off the bat, and it just felt like the perfect fit for me. I’m a Miami native but I didn’t expect to come home so quickly. When I took the job, I let them know that I wanted to do litigation. It didn’t matter what kind; I just wanted to be in court. The office gave that to me, and within two to three weeks of starting, I was taking depositions and running my own cases.

Of all my friends who went to law firms, I’m the only one with her original job. When you graduate from YLS, you have so many opportunities. Doors are open because you have this amazing degree, and you have a chance to explore and see what else is out there other than the clerkship and law firm combination. Although I see the benefit of going into a clerkship, I just wanted responsibility and I wanted to be in a courtroom right away.

What does your day-to-day look like?

Let me tell you about yesterday. On Wednesday mornings, I volunteer in a pre-kindergarten reading program sponsored by the United Way. We work on reading and vocabulary. Even though I do traditional public interest work, I think it’s important to be active in the community.

At 10:00 AM, I had mediation for one of my workers’ compensation cases. In Florida, mediation is mandatory in these types of cases prior to trial. You sit down with the employee, their counsel, the adjuster, and the mediator to talk about the issues and see if you can resolve them without the court’s intervention.

Next, I worked to address a question for our procurement department about a vendor’s liability. I worked with the chief of the torts section on that matter.

In the afternoon, I worked on a resolution for a commissioner. We do all the legislative work for the Board of County Commissioners, and as part of that, we write all of the legislation.

I’m the head of my section, and we had an attorney recently retire, so I also took some time to review his cases, figuring out which ones to close and which ones to transfer.  During my day, I took about half a dozen calls from departments and my adjusters.

When you think about litigation, you might think you just get a case and you work on that. But when you’re in a government practice, a lot of the work involves advising your client before a matter becomes litigated. I like working with the county because my clients are really trying to do the right thing. They don’t fly by the seat of their pants and then ask us to fix the problem. They bring us in early on and ask for our opinions, so my work involves a lot of discussions and researching issues off the cuff. It keeps me on my toes. One day in my office is never the same as the next.


What skills do you rely on now that law school did not emphasize enough?

People skills: how to handle people and how to talk to people. In my job, I talk to commissioners, judges, opposing counsel, doctors, and employees who may only have a high school education. The ability to communicate with a broad based group is the most important skill I use. I see a lot of people coming out of law school not understanding how important communication is. They think: I just need to write briefs and motions and I’ll be set, but learning to communicate is critical. Even in oral argument, I see people that don’t know how to communicate effectively. Ultimately, judges are people, too. You need to be able to read people, make changes in the way you speak and write depending on your audience, and pay more attention to how people are receiving your message.


What expected or unexpected professional obstacles have you faced? What has been your biggest challenge?

Early in my career, I had a case that dealt with an issue of law created by case law, as opposed to statute. The case law was convoluted. I was going to trial, and I just couldn’t formulate a good argument. I knew I was right, but I didn’t know why I was right. It came to me the night before the trial—a way to read all of the case law together to support my position. Even still, the judge didn’t buy my argument. I was confident enough that I appealed, and I was able to convince the appellate court.

When you’re a new attorney, it’s easy to feel scared. I was three or four years out of law school and going up against an attorney who had been practicing for 30 years. But that case taught me not to be scared. Just because someone has been practicing for a long time doesn’t mean that they’re always right. At the trial level, they might get more leeway because of their reputation. But if you have the right argument, you will prevail. If I believe my argument and my client believes my argument, that’s all I need. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. And when you lose, the world doesn’t end. We need to learn from our defeats, learn what we can do better, and accept that sometimes, even when we’ve done everything right, we’re still going to lose. We shouldn’t take it personally. Looking back, if I could give myself advice as a new attorney, I would tell myself: You’re going to lose some. It’s not always your fault (though sometimes it is). You will learn so much more from your losses and mistakes than from your wins. You have to accept that it’s not always going to go your way. You will survive, even when you fail.


What advice was helpful to you as a law student, or what advice did you wish you had received?

When I went to law school, I had Professor Guido Calebresi for Torts, and he gave the “off-the-treadmill” speech. I took it to heart, but during my second year, I realized that not everyone had. I still think that I did law school the right way for me, but I realized that there were many people who were going to office hours and chatting with professors and building relationships outside of the classroom. I didn’t make a broad-based effort to get to know my professors. I didn’t do moot court. I focused on things that I really loved, like clinic and working on the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism. I was very involved with YLW & LLSA, and we hosted symposiums to shed light on what it was like to be a woman in the law school and highlight the lack of women and men of color on the faculty. That was the work I was passionate about.

My advice is not to bow to the peer pressure, or the sense that everybody’s interviewing for a firm, so I’ve got to interview for a firm. There’s a sense that you have to keep up with the Jones’. There are always going to be a group of Jones’, and there are always going to be gunners who will work the system.

I came from a school where I didn’t have to go talk to my professors. I got good grades and the professors would come and talk to me. It was different at YLS. We didn’t have grades, and unless you put yourself out there, the professors weren’t going to come talk to you. If I could tell my YLS self one thing, it would be: You’re going to do your own thing. Other people will do the gunner thing. Ignore them.

During the summer I spent in DC at a firm, I made more money than my parents were making. It’s very hard to say no to that when you have financial burdens. But COAP is great. It’s the best thing that Yale offers. It really does help. One of my best friends went to a firm for a few years, decided it wasn’t for her, and went into legal aid.  COAP helped her the rest of the way. I can’t stress enough how helpful COAP is. It’s amazing, and the most generous of the programs out there.

And, I have to put in a plug for Fiona Doherty. Go talk to her! She has done incredible public interest work since she graduated from law school. For me, all of the clinic professors were like that; they cared so much. Steve Wizner was my mentor, and I had great discussions with him about where to go, and why. He was such a proponent of the idea that you should go save the world the way you need to do it.

Any final words of advice?

Be cognizant of balance. When you’re in law school, it can feel like everything is about law school. And when you start working, you’re all about work. Start having balance in your life early on, even before you have a family, so that when you do have a family, it doesn’t hit you so hard. You have to make yourself a priority. Make yourself leave work at a set time. Build in time for yoga, volunteer work, or anything else that’s important to you. And take your vacation time! Please. Don’t ever not take your vacation time. When you come out of law school, you’re focused on what comes next, and not thinking about the arc of your life. Women who start incorporating balance early on are the ones who succeed in juggling work and family. The women I know who have had the hardest time are the ones who are married and can stay home if they want to and feel a huge psychological struggle about what to do. Had they striven for balance earlier on, it would have been easier for them to balance work and family and children and all of that stuff. We’re still seeing a big drain of women in their 30s leaving the law to raise their families. And many still aren’t satisfied, even after they leave. So again, find that balance early on and keep it, even if you’re building it around having a dog or taking a cooking class. Whatever it is, make it a priority. And say no! We’re so gung ho about proving ourselves, wanting to please people, and getting ahead. Say no once in a while and find balance early on so that you don’t burn out and leave the law altogether.
Of even older pedigree is the expression as homework for you mad as a march hare, first attested in the 16th century.