Philip Lopez named ASC 2009 Exceptional New Alumnus

(07-21-2009)

Growing up in a ranching family, Philip Lopez learned very early how important water is to the San Luis Valley and the area's economy. "I always had it in mind to become a water lawyer."

2004 graduate Philip Lopez is ASC's Exceptional New Alumnus for 2009.

2004 graduate Philip Lopez is ASC's Exceptional New Alumnus for 2009.

Nevertheless, he didn't expect to land his first job in that field, in his hometown, no less. Shortly after earning his law degree at University of Colorado School of Law in 2008, Lopez, a 2004 Adams State graduate, was hired as an associate with the Alamosa law firm, Lester Sigmond Rooney and Schwiesow. (The firm was co-founded by the Hon. Carlos Lucero Adams State Class of 1961.)

"This is my home. I'm vested in it. It was my dream to be able to come back to the valley and practice water law," he said.

Lopez's early success has earned him Adams State College's 2009 Exceptional New Alumnus Award, which will be presented at the Homecoming Banquet, October 2. For details and tickets, please call the ASC Alumni Office, 719-587-8110.

There's no denying the depth of Lopez's roots. His paternal ancestors six generations back were among the first to settle in the San Luis Valley; he can trace his family to Spanish Conquistadors who first came to Florida, then Santa Fe. On his mother's side, Lopez is the fifth generation of Swedes who also made their livelihood farming in the valley. On both sides, he is in the first generation to attend college.

"My family always heavily stressed the importance of getting an education, because it's the one thing that can't be taken away from you," he said. "If you're lucky enough to have gotten an education, you have an obligation to help others."

For that reason, he nominated fellow 2004 graduate Darlene Clayton, a social work major, for the award. "She works with children who grew up in abusive households, which I find very admirable. She epitomizes my belief in using your education to better the lives of those around you."

He added:"I don't really think I'm that exceptional. There's quite a few recent alumni in or just finishing law school." He said he never felt at any educational disadvantage coming from Adams State. "Adams State is such an amazing place, to be able to do what it does: give people the opportunity for an education - that's priceless."

Joe Martinez, Adams State Class of 1999, who nominated Lopez for the award, said: "Phil has consistently shown an unmatched will to succeed and to be the best in whatever task he may tackle. Phil has always desired to return to the San Luis Valley to give every benefit he earned back to his community."

Learning the Ropes

Lopez values working with three experienced attorneys, because it "lets me learn the ropes, and that's something a young attorney needs. Law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer, but it doesn't teach you how to be a lawyer - the procedures and practical aspects."

He works most closely with attorney Erich Schwiesow. "I was excited when I found out he specializes in my two main interest areas: water and government. Once I got to fill in for him as Alamosa city attorney, and that was really cool." Lopez said. At Adams State, Lopez was active in AS&F and served as president during his junior year.

"It was great experience for learning how to be a leader. You need the ability to work with and learn from others. You can't always think you're right," he explained. "You need to develop the ability to see what needs to be changed and to work through things and make them better than when you found them."

Those lessons in leadership are serving Lopez well in his role as chair of the Alamosa County Democratic Party. He gained more exposure to government and law during law school, through internships with Governor Bill Ritter's legal counsel and with the State Attorney General. He also worked on the 2004 Congressional campaign team of fellow valley native, Ken Salazar, who is now Secretary of the Interior.

As an undergraduate, Lopez interned with San Luis Valley Federal Bank and, after completing his degree in finance and economics, in the ASC Office of Finance. One of his projects was assisting the San Luis Valley Development Resource Group in analyzing the economic impact Adams State has in the San Luis Valley.

Adams State Vice President for Finance and Administration Bill Mansheim said, "Although his background in business and finance was primarily limited to his studies at the time, Phil turned out to be a very competent analyst. He worked as my lead analyst on a campus-wide zero based budgeting project. This project was a critical component of our strategic plan as our institution looked for efficiencies due to the tight fiscal climate that exists in Colorado public higher education. The college is still reaping benefits from Phil's hard work. Phil was a joy to work with, and I'm really proud of his accomplishments."

The Ripple Effect

Lopez's affinity for water law and government has only been reinforced in his first year of practice. "I quickly discovered that I like cases that affect everybody, that are big picture, or concern policy. That's why I like water law so much - it 'ripples' - it can have a wide impact. I had one case that was the epitome of what I want to do: represent farmers trying to win rights to use water from a local stream."

His admiration for farmers and ranchers and desire to help his dad on the ranch was one reason Lopez attended college in his hometown. "It's a great lifestyle. You see tangible results of your work. The best feeling is being tired after a day of physical labor." Lopez said his father, Gus, who is nearing age 79, still "does it all. . . He is amazing. He can outwork me. He's one person I look up to for the way he handles himself, his work ethic and self discipline."

Lopez has earned the admiration and respect of his friends, mentors, and colleagues - but he suspects his father might be a little disappointed. "I think he wants me to be a farmer."

By Julie Waechter