Law Alumna Breaks New Ground

A native of Colombia who immigrated to North Jersey as a child, Juliana Diaz is the first woman appointed to a municipal court judgeship in New Jersey’s fourth-largest city

Juliana Diaz RLAW’07, center, with her mother, Leonora McCain, and her stepfather, Jacob McCain, after Diaz was sworn in as the first female municipal court judge in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

It took a challenging start at Rutgers Law School in Camden for Juliana Diaz to find her calling. “The first semester was rough for me,” said Diaz, who attended law school after graduating from George Washington University. “I was very discouraged.”

Unsure if she wanted to continue, Diaz sought out advice from Eve Klothen, then assistant dean for pro bono and public interest programs for the law school, who advised her and helped her find her focus. “She was a stepping point in changing my trajectory to focus on public interest,” Diaz said, adding that Klothen helped her land an internship doing pro bono work for indigent clients. “The rest of my law school career was really focused on public interest law.”

Diaz’s career remained on a public interest path after she graduated from Rutgers Law in 2007, culminating in her being the first woman named to the Municipal Court in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in February. “Elizabeth has been around for 350 years, but at the municipal court level, there had never been a woman appointed to the bench,” she said.

Diaz, who came to New Jersey from Colombia with her family when she was 9, started her own practice in Elizabeth in 2009, which has focused primarily on representing Spanish-speakers in real estate, immigration issues, and family law. She said she is now proud to serve as a judge in the city of 128,000 residents, approximately 65 percent of whom are Hispanic, including many with roots in Colombia. “It’s good to have a reflection of your community on the bench,” she said. “It’s very important for people to see their own faces there.”

She credits her experience at Rutgers Law School in Camden—where she participated in the Immigrant Justice Clinic and helped to develop a program for children in need of Social Security Disability representation—as being very supportive of her. “It was a familial type of community,” she said. “Everyone was very welcoming to one another. It was competitive, yet inclusive.”

Before starting her practice, Diaz worked as a legal services attorney in Newark representing low-income tenants facing eviction matters. Beyond practicing law, she has spent time serving the Latino community in various needs, such as shelter and health. In 2019, she served as the legal advisor for the Colombian Consulate in Newark.

Her decision to focus on public interest law that she made at Rutgers Law School is one she does not regret. “It is gratifying to help out the community,” she said.

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