When Raquel "Rocky" Martinez approached her high school counselor to discuss her plan to pursue a legal career, she did not expect to receive such a discouraging response. Her counselor suggested enrolling in a trade school so that she could become a "good secretary." At the time, Rocky Martinez, an ambitious young lady of humble upbringing, was a senior at a high school outside Chicago. She explained that she planned to attend local Morton College for two years, after which she would transfer to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). After graduating from college, Rocky planned on attending law school. Although Rocky's parents had promoted the idea of attending college her whole life, not one person in her family had been through the experience and nobody knew what was required. Although Rocky was an honor student and class president by her senior year, she had not taken the necessary preparatory classes nor had she taken the ACT or SAT. "A community college is about all you can hope for," replied her counselor. "I was incensed," remembers Rocky, who is now a strong advocate of community colleges. She would use this experience as a motivating factor for the following years as she persevered and carried on toward her aspiration of becoming an attorney.
Rocky Martinez was born in Chicago and grew up in suburban Lyons, Illinois. Her father was a Mexican-American, born and raised on a farm, with a high school diploma and a white-collar job. Her mother, a woman of Polish decent, was a housewife and a professional musician. Rocky is the youngest of four children, with three older brothers. "I knew at an early age that I was going to be an attorney," recounts Rocky. "I credit that to my brothers, they were older, stronger, bigger, and more boisterous. The only defense I had was my mouth."
Rocky's parents understood the value of an education and insisted that she and her siblings attend college. "They were not in a position to help financially; emotionally they were there, but financially they weren't." In an attempt to persuade her brothers to pursue a post-secondary education, her father made an offer to finance one year of college in Mexico. Otherwise, her brothers were on their own to finance their college educations. All of Rocky's siblings declined their father's offer and decided not to attend college. When it came time for Rocky's high school graduation, the same offer to study in Mexico was not extended because her dad knew that she would be in school (and living at home) for a long time. But Rocky was determined not to let anything get in the way of achieving her ultimate objective-not her high school counselor's discouraging words, and not the fact that her family was not in the position to finance her education.
Rocky began working part-time when she was only 14, pumping gas at a local Arco station in suburban Chicago. She continued working at gas stations and at school as she attended classes at Morton College. While at Morton, Rocky became active in politics and she continued her involvement in student government, becoming a student trustee by her second year.
In accordance with her plans, she transferred to UIC after earning her Associate's Degree in Pre-Law. While at UIC, Rocky obtained a part-time position in the financial aid office. She also continued her political involvement and was elected student body president during her senior year. Rocky was able to graduate college, having studied political science and criminal justice, after five years-despite her involvement in student government and having two or three part-time jobs at all times. She took some time off between college and law school to work two jobs and save money, as she was able to convert her part-time job in the financial aid office to a full-time position.
After working for some time, Rocky applied for the January term at John Marshall Law School and was accepted. Her most opportunistic moment while in law school occurred near the end of her first year at a Christmas reception for what was then the Latin American Bar Association. Neil F. Hartigan, Illinois' Attorney General at the time, was in attendance. She remembers being advised by some seasoned attorneys in the Association not to approach Hartigan nor ask him about employment opportunities in the Attorney General's Office. Rocky figured she had nothing to lose. She walked right up to Hartigan and said, "I am a first year law student who needs a job and I would like to work in your office." "Come see me Monday," replied Hartigan.
Rocky was sitting in the Attorney General's office on Monday morning when Hartigan asked, "Where do you want to work?" "I didn't do my homework," remembers Rocky. "I didn't know what positions were available. So I started telling him my interests." She had hoped to become a criminal prosecutor. "So I mentioned criminal trials, he said 'no problem.' I was assigned to that Division and started work there shortly thereafter. I had a paid law-clerk's position." Rocky continued to work part-time for the Attorney General's Office throughout law school and was able to make court room appearances with experienced attorneys by the time she was a 3L.
While clerking for the Attorney General's Office, Rocky underwent an experience that would change her mind about being a career criminal prosecutor. At the time, the office was prosecuting a number of nursing homes for criminal neglect. "I remember them having blow-up photographs in the conference room. So here I come with some hotdogs for lunch. They start bringing out these photographs of this woman who had died from neglect. I mean, something like that…it's beyond." Rocky struggled to find words to describe the horror depicted in the photographs. "One of the guys looked at me and said, 'hey little girl, you have to be able to eat your hotdog and keep it down while dealing with cases like this if you intend to be a criminal prosecutor.' My face must have been green. I thought, no…I don't have to do this; I don't have to lose touch with my humanity. You can still get very involved and make a difference in the world, but you don't have to lose your humanity." Later, Rocky was able to secure a transfer to the Consumer Protection Division in the Attorney General's Office, where she stayed after obtaining her law license and concentrated on civil matters.
After leaving the Attorney General's Office, Rocky took a position in the Consumer Fraud Division of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office. Her new position was far more demanding but allowed for more interaction with victims and provided for hands-on experience with thousands of consumers in statutory fraud cases. She credits the office with helping her to understand the necessity of accurate record keeping and the benefits of preventative education by getting the word out to vulnerable consumers. "Our primary purpose was to put disreputable firms out of business… to prevent them from ripping anybody else off."
While working at the State's Attorney's Office, a Chicago newspaper ran a series of stories concerning disreputable privately owned trade schools with short-term programs. "They were basically financial aid mills, with some recruitment taking place at homeless shelters after offers of one-time cash payments." These schools did not provide the promised programs; some were without the necessary equipment while others did not have teachers. During the investigations of these cases, Rocky was able to work with representatives of the United States Department of Education, the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.
Because of the investigations, the resulting litigation and her experience working in a financial aid office, Rocky was offered a position at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC). She thought, "Maybe I'll try something a little new." The gentleman extending the employment offer claimed: "You aren't going to know what to do with all the extra time on your hands. We have a 371⁄2-hour work week and five weeks paid vacation to start." "And a healthy raise," adds Rocky. "I've never seen a 371⁄2-hour work week," says Rocky chuckling. She continues, jokingly, "To this day I tell that man 'you lied to me.'"
As Compliance Administrator, Rocky's first job with ISAC was primarily a management position, which involved overseeing the managers of several departments within the Commission. A reorganization took place after only six months on the job, and Rocky credits her law degree with granting her the opportunity to stay with the Commission. As Compliance Counsel, she began providing legal services for the agency. One of her first tasks as an attorney for ISAC was to promulgate the office's administrative rules, "which is an experience in and of itself." She also started serving as the Freedom of Information Officer and interpreted a myriad of laws, rules and regulations involving student financial aid.
Five years ago, ISAC commenced an administrative hearing process. The hearings provide the Commission with an opportunity to answer concerns from scholarship and grant applicants, as well as student loan borrowers. The new process provides a less-expensive means of due process. Rocky eventually rose to the position of Deputy General Counsel and now manages the Chicago legal office for the agency. During the workday, you can find her in her office in the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago or advocating for ISAC in one of the many administrative hearings conducted by the agency.
"ISAC is one-stop shopping. We teach people about funding higher education," explains Rocky. "I knew early on that I could easily double my salary working at a LaSalle Street law firm, but I wanted quality of life, and I really wanted to make a difference. I remember how truly difficult it was for me to fund my own education. I wanted to do some outreach and help other people learn about the resources that are available to them. Nobody knew any of these things in my family."
Rocky is married, currently has no children, and has two dogs, two and four years old, respectively. Her husband, who managed a muffler shop for 15 years, decided to go back to school, graduated college, and is now a Junior High teacher. For recreation, Rocky enjoys riding her Harley Davidson (which she has named Tommy-short for The Other Man), watching science-fiction movies, practicing skeet shooting with her 20-gauge shotgun (named Sweet Pea), and riding one of two dirt bikes on the family-owned 180-acre farm in Indiana. (Yes, they have names too: Little Sister and Number Four). Her mother currently resides in the 145+-year-old farmhouse on the property where Rocky plans to retire someday. When I asked her how she felt about being a life-long government attorney and about her husband's recent career choice, the charismatic and inspiring lawyer replied, "neither one of us is going to become rich, but we are happy and we will make a lot of difference in people's lives."
*Bryant Gomez is a second-year law student at the Southern Illinois University School of Law.