Cooley graduate lives out Cuban grandfather's dream of law career

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Julie Perez, center (in dark dress), is shown with her “abuelo”/grandfather (third from right) and various other family members who made the trip for her graduation cermony. Dean Nelson Miller is at far left.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JULISSA PEREZ

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Julissa “Julie” Perez has already packed more into her young life than some people do over many decades, and now it is clear that she is on course to live a life her grandfather would have  loved to pursue.

When Perez graduated May 19 from Thomas M. Cooley Law School, 12 members of her immediate and extended family came in from Florida and New Jersey to celebrate the clan’s first attorney.
Her grandfather (“abuelo” in Spanish), Leon Machin, grew up in Cuba. His dream of becoming a lawyer ended permanently when he was forced to flee the incoming military forces led by Fidel Castro after only one year in law school.

“Law school was different there,” Perez said. “It was a lot of self-educating, the whole Lincoln thing. There were professors but apparently it was mainly an intense amount of reading.”

She adds proudly, “He was in the military before that, and they would do a series of strenuous tests, including typing, level of knowledge about the government, and only certain people would qualify for law school in each round. He finally got what they called ‘first place’ the third time he tried, and started in law school in 1957-58.”

Having served for nearly a decade in the army of dictator Fulgencio Batista, Machin was a likely target for Castro’s revolutionary forces.

Though her grandfather tells many horror stories of the takeover, including murder of respected citizens by the Castro army, Perez notes that the Cuban people resented and despised Batista, who left the country very quickly, taking his fortune with him. “A lot of the Cubans have animosity against Batista because he just disappeared when Castro came around,” she says. “They  thought, ‘How could you not stay here and defend your country?’”

Machin, fearing for his life, came to the United States, leaving behind his wife and seven-month-old daughter, Perez’s mother. He acquired a forged passport, which claimed he was a “merchant,” a foreshadowing of what he would eventually achieve.

Machin settled in the New York-New Jersey area. Obsessed with bringing his wife and daughter to the U.S., Machin worked extremely hard at whatever odd job he could find — construction, painting, even working in a knitting factory.

Just seven months later, he could afford to have his family join him in New Jersey. Perez’s grandmother told her that they, oddly enough, were able to get regular passports and travel without fear. “She said at that time the embassy was still open so she was able to get legitimate papers for herself and my mom,” Perez says, “and they even came here with citizenship already.”

Machin’s failure to finish law school should not be construed as an indication that he was unsuccessful in life. Against great odds, his hard work and shrewd decisions paid off, first in starting his own linoleum business, and working up to opening a furniture store in Union City, N.J.

“In his mind once he got here he saw that if you actually worked you can get somewhere — it amazed him the way your hard work really paid off. That’s not the way some other countries are,” Perez comments.

After retirement from the store, “Abuelo” moved to Miami and today, still robust at the age of 85, he continues to own and manage rental properties, going in to the office every day.

“He gets up early and showers and shaves and goes in to his little office,” Perez says. “His family was so poor in Cuba he told me has no memory of ever seeing his father eat a steak, because he had no teeth. He didn’t have shoes until he was eight years old – imagine! It’s crazy. He told himself when he got to Jersey, I’m never going to let my family experience poverty, and he became very, very successful.”

That work ethic has also found full expression in Perez herself. “I’d like to be an entertainment lawyer,” she says, “and I’ve been working in the field since I was about 16. My aunt is a gospel singer who has her own record label, and I worked for her  until I was 22, even in college.

“I set up the publishing house for her music when I was only 19. Back then, everything was written forms, nothing was on line. It was all trial and error, and that’s how I learned.”

Though her parents met in New Jersey, they divorced when she was two years old, so she wound up living in Florida from the age of 9 on. After graduating from Nova Southeastern University with a B.S. in Business Administration, Perez worked at a law firm in Miami which specialized in foreclosure and housing law.

When one of the partners, Joe Ganguzza, left to form his own firm, Perez went with him. Ever ambitious,  Perez had started her own consulting company, Soul Lounge Entertainment, in 2007 while still working for Ganguzza. “I decided to formalize my pet project, helping people with their licensing of music. It’s not really anything legal, just telling people how to get paid for what they’re doing.” Perez herself is a drummer and loves music.

She refers to Ganguzza as “my Italian dad.” She had gotten her paralegal certificate in 2008. When Ganguzza died suddenly in 2009, she decided it was time to start looking at law schools.

“I had never really given up on that hope and dream, but I just had a terrible LSAT score. I was in the National Honor Society in college, got great grades, but it took me four times to raise my LSAT. But Cooley takes you as a whole, and counts your life experience and what you’ve done.”

She was accepted at another law school as well, but decided to go to Cooley’s Grand Rapids campus since she could start right away.

 “Honestly, Cooley is really hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In the past I always got good grades and never studied, so I had to learn study skills and law at the same time. But the professors are just awesome. Dean Miller would give us the same material in four different ways so that people with different learning styles could get it,” she says.

“Plus, they would get so involved with us. I was in the Hispanic Latino Law Society and we did a do’s and don’t’s fashion show, and the faculty and staff volunteered to show what not to do, and got all dressed up in the ‘don’t’ outfits. There was great camaraderie, always.”

Perhaps the high point of her law school career was an externship she did with a seasoned entertainment lawyer in Florida, Barry Chase, making use of both streams of her skills. Another of the interns working there was from Cooley as well.

“I couldn’t have found a better mentor. He told us, you guys are pretty much at first year associate level. He’d let us be part of the initial consultation and he’d actually ask us our opinion. Fortunately I think every time I was actually making a good point, which gave me a really good feeling — like, I actually know stuff,” Perez says.

Planning to continue Soul Lounge Entertainment, Perez thinks she will probably pursue a solo practice. She is taking a bar prep course to help her pass in the state of Florida.

And is her grandfather proud? “Oh my gosh, yeah,” Perez says. “He and my whole family couldn’t be prouder.”