Manny Sanchez L'74, the trial attorney and noted uber-schmoozer who helped raise millions of dollars for the Obama campaign, was exhilarated last spring as he listened to the president deliver a Cinco de Mayo address at the White House. "Yeah, Barack," Sanchez shouted spontaneously from the audience. Obama, recognizing his friend's voice, looked up with a smile. "I knew that was Manny over there." As the crowd laughed, Obama pointed to Sanchez's wife, "Pat, do something about Manny." For Sanchez, a former gang member who now runs in elite business and political circles, the president's shout-out was the ultimate recognition in a tremendous up-by-thebootstraps life story.
Sanchez tells his tale with a trial attorney's narrative gift and dramatic flair, recounting his teen years as a member of Chicago's "Lazy Gents." This was the early1960s, when gangs defended their turf with fists, bats, and the occasional chain. Looking back, Sanchez says he's lucky to have come of age before the era of assault rifles and automatic weapons. "The psychology hasn't changed," says Sanchez, noting that today's gangs beckon to teens for the same reason the Lazy Gents beckoned to him. "The gang was part of the neighborhood. It gave me an identity and a sense of belonging."
But gang life was a dead-end path for Sanchez. He passed his days on street corners, committing petty crimes and avoiding schoolwork.
That was when a high school counselor laid it out for him. During a mandatory guidance session, the counselor asked Sanchez what he planned to do if he graduated from high school. With characteristic teenage bravado, Sanchez responded that he was going to be a lawyer. "You're sure not going to be a lawyer," the counselor retorted, reminding Sanchez that he had failed English the previous year, was failing French, and was in the bottom quarter of his class. "Why don't you be honest with yourself."
Sanchez vividly recalls his hands trembling as he left the counselor's office. He says that choosing his next move was easy; he was too proud to let the counselor be right. Sanchez resolved to quit the Lazy Gents and focus on his studies so that he could get into college and ultimately law school. Years later, Sanchez would realize that the counselor had made very astute use of reverse psychology.
It was Perry Mason, the fictional defense attorney who Sanchez had watched on television as a child, who had inspired Sanchez to become an attorney. Sanchez had watched his father, a truck driver with a sixth-grade education, "break his back" to support his family, and Sanchez wanted something different for himself. With no relatives who had attended college or had professional careers, Sanchez turned to Perry Mason as a putative mentor. He wanted to do what the character did each episode: wear a suit, act in front of an audience, and win. (Lest anyone discount the mentoring powers of Perry Mason, during her confirmation hearing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the television show as an influence on her career path.)
Sanchez set out to prove that he could achieve his dream of becoming an attorney. He studied hard, got into college, and eventually gained admission, and a scholarship, to Penn Law School.
Somehow, reconciling his working-class upbringing in a Mexican-American family with an affluent college and Ivy League law school education — at a time when the student bodies were less diverse than they are today — never felt like much of a challenge to Sanchez. He laughs when describing how he traded his sharkskin pants for Levi's when he arrived at college, stating simply "I didn't want a superficial thing like my dress to be a divisive feature." At Penn Law, Sanchez encountered classmates who were "so smart it was scary," but he quickly felt at home, even becoming president of his class. "At the end of the day," he says, "we're still all human beings."
As a law student, Sanchez interned with a civil defense firm and knew that he had found his calling. After graduation, he went into private practice and eventually founded the firm that would become Sanchez Daniels & Hoffman, which he helped build into one of the nation's largest minority-owned law firms, with clients from McDonald's to Ford. Today, in addition to maintaining an active trial practice, Sanchez is a powerful advocate for the Hispanic community and a dedicated philanthropist.
But don't call Sanchez a litigator. Unlike trial attorneys, Sanchez says, litigators focus in discovery and settlement — in cases that don't go to verdict. With his outsize personality, Sanchez thrives on courtroom drama and connecting with juries. All these years later, does he still believe that trying a case is like acting? "Absolutely," he says. "Every trial is inherently dramatic. I couldn't imagine anything I'd rather be doing than trying cases." Except, perhaps, exchanging shout-outs with the president.