Born on an Air Force base in Okinawa, Japan, Maria Pabon Lopez grew up in Puerto Rico. She came to the continental U.S. at 18 to study religion at Princeton University, and taught junior high science in New Jersey for one year after graduating.
After meeting an employment lawyer who taught her about rights in the workplace, Lopez decided to go to law school. “She was so impressive, I decided on the spot that that would be what I wanted to do, since I could help others,” said Lopez.
Upon earning her J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Lopez worked in litigation at a large firm in Philadelphia for a year. After that, she took advantage of the opportunity to move back to Puerto Rico and take the civil bar. While there, she transitioned from private practice to public service, eventually becoming Assistant U.S. Attorney, Criminal Division, for the District of Puerto Rico. Lopez and her husband then moved to Texas, where she advocated for low-income immigrants and battered women. Together, the Lopezes wrote a book about education and undocumented Latino children.
In 1999, Lopez joined the faculty at the University of Missouri’s Columbia School of Law, and three years later, she moved to Indiana to join the faculty at the University of Indiana’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
With such an impressive background, it’s no surprise that Lopez received a call from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law in October 2010 as the institution was searching for a new dean. After a six-month interview process, Lopez became the first female law school dean in Louisiana, joining a tiny number of Latina deans around the country.
Why Loyola and New Orleans? Lopez, who attended an all-girls’ Catholic school as a child, admired Loyola’s Jesuit mission of community involvement and helping those less fortunate, especially through its wage-claim clinic, which serves low-income immigrants with limited English. “Oh my goodness, the community,” said Lopez. “It really is a very special place. It’s the third law school that I’ve worked with, so I have some basis for comparison.”
“New Orleans is a city that I always thought in the back of my mind I could live in,” said Lopez, citing the friendly locals and abundant Catholic churches. The warm weather was a plus, too, after nine years in Indiana.
As dean, Lopez no longer works directly with clients, instead focusing on alumni outreach and the day-to-day responsibilities of running a law school. Her colleagues sometimes lean on her for assistance. “It’s a real treat, because I’m happy to provide the support,” said Lopez.
Recently, the National Jurist and PreLaw magazines named the Loyola College of Law one of the 15 most innovative U.S. law schools for its skills program’s “practice tracks.” Lopez noted that the College of Law’s new initiatives will aim to bolster this hands-on experiential training, offered to law students as part of the school’s skills curriculum. In addition to overseeing these initiatives, the dean is preparing for the Loyola College of Law’s centennial in 2014.
Lopez also serves on the Diversity Committee of the Louisiana State Bar Association and the board of Puentes New Orleans, a nonprofit supporting the inclusion of Latino community members in public, political and socioeconomic life. In 2013, she was named a Woman of the Year by New Orleans CityBusiness.