“Very, very early on, I had an impression that I wanted to be a lawyer,” recalls Alex Cárdenas ’15, who cites his upbringing by his Mexican immigrant parents as a catalyst for choosing a legal career. “The question wasn’t ‘will I be an attorney?’ But ‘what sort of attorney will I be?’”
Since his graduation from Fordham Law in 2015, Cárdenas has worked as an honors attorney at the U.S. Department of Labor and clerked for three different federal judges, and now, as a recipient of a 2020 Public Rights Project (PRP) Fellowship, he continues to work towards the sort of attorney he will be. In September 2020, the California native began a two-year fellowship with the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office, which is building a reputation for innovation in its approach. “Progressive district attorneys [like Boulder’s]are trying to think of how best to serve communities through the criminal justice system,” he explains.
A Foundation in Public Service
After graduating from Cornell with a major in American Studies, Cárdenas knew he wanted to stay in the New York area for law school, but didn’t yet have his heart set on a school. Ultimately, what solidified his decision to matriculate at Fordham was a personal call from Professor Jennifer Gordon. “That individual touch is what made the difference for me.”
That phone call was the beginning of a mentoring relationship that continued throughout Cárdenas’ years at Fordham. As Professor Gordon’s research assistant, he traveled with her to Mexico to present a memo on the regulation of labor recruitment between Mexico and the US for a Mexico City nonprofit and to interview migrant workers in Sinaloa about their experiences.
While at Fordham, Cárdenas was a member of the Stein Scholars program, and he performed more than 1,000 hours of pro bono work. After law school, continuing in public service seemed the most natural path.
Exploring Opportunities for Innovation in the Criminal Justice System
Despite spending his clerkship years in court and nursing a growing interest in the criminal side of law, Cárdenas had not considered joining a district attorney’s office until a recent conversation with Aisha Baruni, Fordham Law’s director of counseling and public interest scholars. Baruni suggested Cárdenas consider a district attorney’s office with a growing progressive reputation. After doing a little research of his own, he was drawn to the Boulder District Attorney’s Office for its “innovative ways to think about the criminal justice system.”
“So far, it’s been a tremendous learning opportunity to see the criminal justice system from this vantage point and to get a much better understanding of the building blocks of a criminal case,” he says. The job is potentially frightening at times, he explains, when considering how charging decisions can impact a person’s entire life.
Many of the cases on which Cárdenas expects to focus center around issues with workplace protection, especially in the construction industry, where many of the employees are undocumented or migrant workers.
“The unfortunate reality is that underrepresented communities are more likely than not to be subject to predatory practices [such as wage theft],” says Cárdenas. In the case of Colorado, wage theft can be prosecuted as criminal theft, which allows the Boulder District Attorney to protect workers who might otherwise have little legal recourse to protect themselves.
Fordham Connections Endure
Cárdenas remains incredibly grateful to the Fordham community for how its support has shaped his career. “Professor Clare Huntington was so instrumental in picking up the phone and making calls to judges with whom I had interviews,” he recalls. “And immigration clinic Professor Gemma Solimene has made herself available to talk about her experience, about the immigrant community, and how I can position myself in a place to continue to be an advocate, even though I’m not doing direct immigration law practice.”
In these conversations with his professors, Cárdenas says, “I can continue to think about why I went to law school, and how I can position myself to be of service.”