Raising the Bar

Some students know exactly where their education might lead them––they enroll in classes and immediately they set out on a course to pursue the career they’ve always dreamed of having. But for students such as Laura Cepero, a Valencia College graduate, the path to her career as a defense attorney was never her initial destination, rather it was something she discovered during her educational, professional and personal journey over the last several years.

With a master’s degree in history from the University of Central Florida, Cepero worked in the university’s history department, spending countless hours working among data and information in digital archives when she realized something was missing from her career. Though she can’t pinpoint the exact moment she knew that the missing puzzle piece revolved around working within the legal system, Cepero always knew she had a passion for working for justice and, somehow, the stars aligned one by one in a path leading her to her position as a defense attorney today.

Using the skills she acquired through her history and analytical background, Cepero’s knack for research and activism led to her involvement with Amnesty International, a human rights organization where she volunteered to work on the organization’s death penalty abolition campaign. While initially motivated by the “Innocence Movement,” a social movement based around exonerating wrongly convicted individuals with efforts to reform the criminal justice system, Cepero said she’s opposed to the death penalty as a form of punishment regardless of a person’s innocence or guilt.

“I know [the death penalty] is a controversial topic, but even just as a kid I always wondered ‘what if they didn’t do it?’”, Cepero said. “I never felt right about the government killing people and it was something I was always interested in…so when I finished my master’s degree I got involved in activism.”

Cepero worked closely with inmates throughout this time, speaking with individuals on death row and reviewing their cases to gain a better perspective on the evidence, the trial, and the overall process that led to their incarceration. It was during this time that she met Richard Glossip, a man currently on death row in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary after being convicted of commissioning the 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese. Glossip’s case has garnered not only Cepero’s interest, but international attention due to the unusual circumstances of his conviction with little to no evidence.

“I began speaking with Richard Glossip through letters and phone calls,” Cepero recalled. “He has had an execution date set, delayed, set, delayed…I knew his case in and out, but I was not a lawyer and I couldn’t argue for him. I felt helpless.”

Her desire to help others was only fueled further when someone close to her was falsely accused of a crime and caught up in the complicated legal system. Though it was only a brief experience for Cepero before the charges were cleared and the individual was released, it was a difficult time nonetheless that encouraged her to take a second look at the legal system—and work to fix the flaws she had seen and watched others endure.

“I thought I could do more and apply my skills to help these people, so I looked into the paralegal program at Valencia College and attended classes at night while maintaining my job,” Cepero said.

Although she had jumped back into the classroom at Valencia in 2015, the intention of being a lawyer still wasn’t at the front of her mind. Instead, she was simply seeking a new educational challenge to learn more about the field and enhance her skills for her activism. It wasn’t until the insistence of Valencia professor Carin Gordon did Cepero even consider taking her education one step further and becoming a lawyer.

“I was in Professor Gordon’s Legal Research and Theory II class when she pushed me to do the law school thing,” Cepero recalled. “She came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to law school?’ to which I replied, ‘No,’ and she just repeated, ‘No, you’re going to law school.’”

Excelling in her paralegal program, she decided to take a chance on the goal Gordon laid before her and started studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). As someone who thrives on research and the analytical thought processes behind the law, it was no surprise that Cepero excelled while attending Florida A&M University College of Law at night while working full-time at the Public Defender’s Office throughout the day. Unintimidated by the copious amounts of data, case studies and jargon that plague even the bravest young lawyer’s studies, Cepero graduated top of her class as valedictorian at FAMU in Fall 2020.

She also scored so well on her bar exam that she was invited to speak  at the Fifth District Court of Appeals during her induction ceremony, an honor reserved only for a recipient of one of the highest bar exam scores. But before she was even sworn in, she managed to get her first client released the day before her induction ceremony––thanks to her patience, expertise and experience as a paralegal.

“Getting a client released was really cool because I had been working as a law clerk and writing appeals…and, long story short, we did something kind of novel,” she said.

Along with the attorney she was working with at the time, Cepero’s “novel” approach included going through the appeals process of working to get a man released from prison after he had been convicted and sentenced to ten years due to a drug-related offense. After the Legislature lowered the mandatory minimum sentence to three years, Cepero filed a motion arguing that her client’s sentence was disproportionate and unfair. Though it was an uncommon approach, the judge agreed with the case they presented, and Cepero’s client was ultimately released.

“I don’t usually get to meet the individuals because of the entire length of the process and constantly working on new cases and being involved in the paperwork, but I met (the client) the following week in person and it was such a great experience,” Cepero said. “It’s great to hear you won, that you got them out, but it’s so different to see them in person. I had to hold back the tears because I was so happy for him.”

Not long after that, Cepero was promoted from a law clerk to an associate attorney at the firm she had been working for in Sanford. Today Cepero’s journey comes full circle–or perhaps it’s simply the next stop on her incredible educational and professional journey–as she balances her time between the courtroom and the classroom, where she will be teaching the next generation of lawyers at FAMU starting this fall.

“I had a different destiny than I originally thought I had,” Cepero said. “If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, if you feel like you can do more and make it work with your finances and find your balance, you have to go for it.”