When Mario Ernesto Lopez was named UC Law SF’s inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives this past August, he was undaunted by the fact that the position came without a roadmap. “I’ve always done things a little bit differently,” Lopez says, grinning. Since 2016, he’s brought what coworkers affectionately call his “essential Marioness” – that key combination of levity, imagination, and initiative – to his work in admissions, where he built out diversity recruitment efforts and garnered the respect of colleagues across the college.
Lopez was a natural choice to serve as the school’s DEI director, says Chancellor and Dean David Faigman. “He’s smart, creative, has boundless energy, and is absolutely dedicated to the success of our students,” Faigman says. “Mario’s an absolute joy to work with—his optimism and ‘can-do’ approach to every endeavor is infectious. He brings to DEI work great experience in the area and unlimited potential for the College.”
Lopez’s work – executed one phone call, one campus visit, one recruitment fair at a time – has paid off in aggregate. The class of 2024, which started this fall, is UC Law SF’ most diverse class yet: 50% are students of color and 17% are first-generation college students. This new role is of a piece with UC Law SF’ broader commitment to DEI work, a core focus of its institutional strategic plan.
“Mario has an incredible amount of talent,” says Elizabeth McGriff, who directs the school’s Legal Education Opportunity Program and serves as an equity and inclusion advisor. “I tell my students, ‘You can be qualified for this job or that job, but if you can’t pass the 3 a.m. test, you’re probably not going to get hired. The 3 a.m. test is this: We have to do a motion for a summary judgment. You’re going to have to pull an all-nighter to work on it. Is this the person you want to be with at 3 a.m., when you’re trying to get that work done? And Mario is that person. He has this infectious positivity that makes you feel like everything is possible.”
Lopez never expected to train as a lawyer, let alone work at a law school. The office he occupies now would have felt a world away. Yes, Lopez grew up in the area – in sleepy Marin County, San Francisco’s northern neighbor known for its stunning hikes and gobsmacking property values. But he didn’t rub elbows with attorneys.
His parents had come from El Salvador and Guatemala and found service jobs; his mom cleaned houses and his dad worked as a busser. For Lopez, the path to college was unclear. He always had to work to make ends meet. At 19, he simultaneously enrolled in classes at College of Marin and City College of San Francisco. That Golden Gate Transit and MUNI commute from San Rafael to Ingleside was not for the faint of heart. On the way home, he’d switch buses on McAllister, at the stop across from Mary Kay Kane Hall. “The whole year, I’d wait and look up at Hastings,” Lopez says. It was just a stately building surrounded by stately buildings—a place he saw while passing through.
After Lopez transferred his community college credits and enrolled at UC Davis for his bachelor’s degree, the UC Law SF College of the Law sign on McAllister Street stuck in his brain.
Lopez started working as a bank teller during high school and he’d been working his way up in financial services ever since, catching classes on the edges of his workdays. But justice was important to him – his parents had raised him to care about other people, to do what he could to help them move through the world – and he was ready to test himself. So he studied for the LSAT and applied to law schools, with an eye to UC Law SF.
Once he was admitted, Lopez dug in. He co-led fundraising for La Raza, the largest student organization; served on the intercollegiate trial team; and worked as a White House intern in the National Economic Council under President Obama. (He also co-chaired the White House Interns’ Legal Professional Interest Group.) Lopez imagined that when he graduated in 2015, he’d go into government work. But then his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and he decided to stay in the Bay Area to help take care of her. So when Lopez saw a temp role posted at UC Law SF, he applied. It was a for-now plan at a place he loved.
That temp role turned into a full-time admissions job. And once Lopez was in it, he realized he had a passion for bringing young people into the law, particularly those who were the first in their families to go beyond high school. “My experience at UC Law SF made me want to work here,” he says. “And then, once I was here, to really try to improve things.” He knew he’d have to work hard to recruit promising students and to make law school possible for them.
3L Rodolfo Meda first met Lopez at a “Justice for All” admissions pipeline event. A few months later, Meda felt stuck. He wanted to go to UC Law SF, but had received better scholarships from lower-ranked schools. Lopez helped him negotiate a more competitive offer.
“For first-generation students, there are so many barriers that stand between us and walking into UC Law SF,” Meda says. “But Mario comes in and he clears the path.” Since arriving, Meda has worked in the prestigious Startup Legal Garage and as an editor on the UC Law SF Journal. He recently accepted an offer with a major firm. He says that if he hadn’t met Lopez, none of that would have happened. He would have had fewer opportunities at a smaller firm in a smaller market. And that would have been fine. But it wouldn’t have been his dream.
In his five years as Associate Director of Admissions and Diversity Initiatives, Lopez spearheaded or helped lead many projects, including UC Law SF’ Black Pre-Law Summit, its California Scholars Program, its “3+3” partnership with Spelman College, and its first-ever diversity open house. He saw that bringing marginalized students in the door was just the first of many steps.
Without the right support and services, those students could flounder and lose their footing. Law school classes are fast-paced. Catching up can be hard once you’ve fallen behind, particularly if you don’t know how to ask for help. “If you’re the first in your family to go to college, let alone law school, you can have experience gaps,” Lopez says. “You might not be able to fully maximize all the resources available to you. I’m passionate about bridging those gaps.”
As a natural connector, he had long been introducing prospective and current students to people across the school – alumni, faculty, staff, and other community members – encouraging them to learn from each other’s experiences and drawing on each other’s strengths. “When he tracked me down after that event, he remembered every little detail,” Meda says. “Mario remembers everybody – he remembers where he met them, interactions, conversations. You’re not just another face to him.”
“You could have a curmudgeon sitting down and now here comes Mario,” McGriff says. “Special sauce. Love. Light. Puppies. Rainbows. Warmth. Enthusiasm. Energy. Sartorial splendor!” She laughs, then steadies.
“So that cheeriness always hits you first,” she says. “But the thing you shouldn’t miss is that there are teeth in what he does. There’s substance in what he does. He is unswervingly devoted to the students he serves. Those brilliant soft skills and those objective hard skills? Most people just don’t have both.”
In January 2022, Lopez will launch his first major project as director of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives: the UC Law SF First Generation Program. This comprehensive offering will provide workshops, faculty mentorship, networking opportunities, alumni events, and community for students who, like Lopez, are the first in their families to attend college. UC Law SF’ first-generation population is growing each year, but those students have not always known how to identify or connect with each other. For Lopez, it’s crucial that these students not only survive UC Law SF, but are able to make the most of their legal education.
“I’m motivated by where I came from,” he says. “I had opportunities my parents never had, and never will have, because I was born here.” Lopez sees his winding path to UC Law SF as a mark of extraordinary fortune and he’s keen to pay that forward.
“People can be skeptical of DEI work because they think, oh, this is just for a brochure,” Lopez says. “I need to get people to see the opportunity and understand they can be a part of this school. I have to help guide students into the mindset that they matter and they can accomplish their dreams.”