Mario Nguyen: Law Clerk, Former Prosecutor, &
First-Generation High School Graduate
Sydney Leigh Martin*
Mario Nguyen was the first in his family to graduate high school. He never expected to be a lawyer. But his grit and commitment to advocating for others helped him overcome his life’s obstacles and motivated him to become a lawyer. His advice to others: “there is no one way to be a lawyer.”
Mario is currently completing his second year as an inaugural judicial law clerk in the Southern District and is an adjunct law professor at Texas A&M School of Law. He serves as an alumni ambassador for the U.S. Fulbright Program and was named one of TikTok’s 150 Latino Creatives.
The San Diego FBA is delighted to round out the year sharing Mario’s story as this month’s member spotlight.
Mario still remembers convincing his mom to take him to the DMV at 14 years old to apply for a hardship driver’s license so that he could help her drive his siblings to school. “So you have one of those?” a random stranger commented to Mario’s mother. “A 40-year-old trapped in a 14-year-old body.”
As the child of immigrants, Mario had to grow up fast. His father, a war refugee from Vietnam, dropped out of high school. His mother, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, dropped out of middle school. At five years old, Mario was relocated to a suburb outside of Dallas, Texas with his mother and sister after years of suffering physical abuse from his father.
With an undocumented single mother working long hours cleaning houses to make ends meet, Mario took on a lot of responsibility at a young age. When he was not helping his mom clean houses or taking care of his younger siblings, Mario used his English abilities to complete contracts and school-related paperwork for his mother, design marketing materials for his mother’s house cleaning business, and apply for public benefits on behalf of himself and his siblings. When Mario turned 14, he started working to pay for his own braces, doctor’s appointments, and school expenses.
Mario joined his school’s speech and debate (or “forensics”) team after a teacher encouraged him. He stayed because it was the first place that made him feel like his voice mattered. There, Mario built the foundation for his research, logical reasoning, and public speaking abilities. But traveling to various schools for forensics competitions also opened Mario’s eyes to his potential. Like his parents, Mario’s older sister dropped out of high school, but speech and debate kept Mario from doing the same.
Although he had no plans to go to college, his senior year he won the National Championship in Original Oratory from the National Speech & Debate Association, receiving a full-ride scholarship to Western Kentucky University (“WKU”). (His entire journey was featured in the documentaryThank You for Judging.) Despite never having visited the school, Mario took his one shot at college by packing his bags and moving to Kentucky to attend WKU. Without anyone to guide him, Mario struggled to acclimate to college at first and considered dropping out. But he persevered and found his place, eventually winning the collegiate National Championship in Informative Speaking by the American Forensics Association.
An Unexpected Path to Law School
While some lawyers dreamed of becoming an attorney since childhood, Mario never considered law school until his sophomore year of college. After entering a YouTube competition, Mario was selected to deliver a keynote speech advocating for the civil rights of the LGBT+ community on the steps of Congress at the 2009 National Equality March in Washington, D.C. This experience inspired him to consider law school.
But it was his participation in the Law School Admission Council’s Pre-Law Undergraduate Scholars (“PLUS”) program that solidified Mario’s decision to apply to law school. There, he lived on a law school campus for a summer and attended mock classes taught by law professors alongside other diverse undergraduate students. At the end of the PLUS program, Mario expected the administrators to tell him he was not suited for law school, but, to his surprise, he received the opposite advice. “I didn’t see lawyers that looked like me, so having the dean of a law school tell me that I was capable of being one meant the world to me,” Mario explains. “But they also told me I needed to be sure before making such a big investment, so I took their advice.”
Before enrolling in law school, Mario explored other passions as potential career options. He worked in economic development and communications at a regional chamber of commerce. Mario was selected as a binational business U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Mexico, and he lived in Mexico City while working at a global social entrepreneurship incubator and attending a non-terminal executive MBA program at El Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico. He also worked at a multicultural communication and marketing consulting start up. But Mario’s interest in pursuing law school never relented. Indeed, he used his spare time to prepare and submit his law school applications.
Initially drawn to its focus on institutional change and governance, Mario ultimately enrolled at Harvard Law School because of its personal touch. “They called me when they admitted me, they sent me a copy of a book in one of my areas of interest signed by the professor who wrote it, and an admissions officer—whom I had never met before—yelled my name across the room when I first stepped into the building on admitted students’ weekend,” Mario recalls.
Finding His Voice as a Lawyer
After graduating from law school, Mario moved back to his hometown of Dallas. He immediately began working in the White-Collar Criminal Defense and Investigations practice of Locke Lord LLP while studying for the bar exam. Practicing as an openly gay lawyer of color in the South, Mario had few role models to emulate. Nevertheless, he found a voice of his own.
Through his work on criminal and civil matters at the firm, Mario gained extensive experience with investigations, motion practice, electronic discovery, depositions, hearings, and sentencing. By his second year, Mario was examining witnesses at trial.
When he was not billing hours, Mario served on his firm’s Diversity, Technology, and Associate Committees. He was a member of the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers 2019 Leadership Class, an associate in the Higginbotham Inn of Court and served as the President of the Dallas LGBT+ Bar Association. Mario published numerous criminal law articles in industry publications and was appointed as an adjunct law professor at Texas A&M School of Law in 2020.
After Mario left the firm, he joined the Fraud Section of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice as Trial Attorney. There, Mario worked on pre- and post-indictment matters in district courts throughout the nation involving healthcare fraud, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and securities fraud. He also served on the Fraud Section’s Technology Committee.
But even five years into practice, Mario still had a lingering desire to clerk. Although he initially accepted a district court clerkship when he graduated law school, Mario withdrew before he started because he could not afford to clerk, as someone coming from a low-income background. So when Mario was offered the opportunity to clerk in the Southern District, he moved to sunny San Diego within weeks.
Paying It Forward
In each place he goes, Mario aims to embed himself in the community and pay forward the kindness he received over the years.
In law school, Mario co-founded one of the first law student organizations for first-generation college graduates and students from low-income backgrounds. He also completed over 1,000 pro bono hours through the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, one of the law school’s honors societies and the oldest student-run legal aid organization in the nation. Mario worked on housing, family, wage and hour, disability benefits, and special immigrant juvenile status cases for exclusively low-income clients.
While in private practice, Mario served as a volunteer attorney at the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office and offered pro bono representation on criminal matters, including post-conviction relief during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also served as a member on the City of Dallas’ LGBT+ Taskforce and the Dallas-Ft. Worth LGBT+ Business Roundtable.
Since moving to San Diego, Mario has regularly volunteered as a moot court judge at the University of San Diego School of Law. He has volunteered with the Chicano Federation to revitalize low-income housing in San Diego. Mario is an organizer for The Big Gay Picnic, a community-focused space for LGBT+ identifying people and allies. Recently, he also graduated from the San Diego County Bar Association’s Leadership Academy.
In his spare time, Mario plays pickleball, bakes, and is a content creator on TikTok @AttorneyMario.
*Sydney Leigh Martin is a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and serves on its Public Relations Committee. She is a judicial law clerk in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.