By Emily Jackoway | June 7, 2022 | Lawyer Limelights, Plaintiff Consumer Limelights
Many lawyers grow up in the legal industry, but Natasha Cortes’ story is a little different than most. Her mother, Marling Santiago, is a medical investigator at Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen, a leading plaintiff’s medical malpractice and personal injury firm in Florida. Santiago has been with the firm for more than 30 years, and now Cortes has for more than 20. Growing up, Cortes’ mother introduced her to female lawyers – allowing her to see, from a young age, that there was room for her in the industry. Now, Cortes acts as an inspiration to other young women and people of color who can see themselves reflected in the legal profession.
Cortes has spent her entire career with Grossman Roth, where she is now a partner and head of the medical malpractice division. She has litigated plaintiff’s cases in the areas of medical malpractice, wrongful death, complex personal injury matters and complex mass tort litigation – more than one hundred of which have been multi-million-dollar suits. In every case, she works to transform lives not only with justice and financial compensation, but with tangible policy changes that help transform her community for the better.
That mission is furthered by her commitment to mentorship and increasing diversity in the legal profession. Cortes is a founding member of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida and a member of the Florida Justice Association Minority Caucus and the University of Miami Law Alumni Association. In those organizations, she spearheads mentorship and education programs for minority law students, as well as privately mentoring students from underrepresented communities. Later this month she will be launching a partnership between the FJA and the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in Palm Beach with a mentorship workshop she worked to create.
Lawdragon: Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer, ever since you saw your mother’s work with Grossman Roth? Or did you go off in another direction before coming back?
Natasha Cortes: I think I knew. Growing up, my dad was in the computer software industry and my mom was in this legal world, and I kind of gravitated towards the legal world. Although, I do love math and science, so I was considering, "Do I go to medical school? Do I do law?" Well, medical malpractice work blends the two. It seemed like a perfect match.
LD: Absolutely. How do you keep on the cutting edge of science in your work now?
NC: Having good medical experts to guide you is important, but a lot of it is reading the science. I buy the latest textbooks for subjects I’m working on. I'll read the clinical studies. And then I'll meet with my experts once I have that basis of knowledge so they can fine tune my research to the particular issues in the case.
But it takes many hours of prep work to be able to take an effective depo of a doctor. I just took a depo last week of an interventional radiologist in a prostate embolization case. I had never had a case involving a prostate embolization. It was a new area, and I had to learn the anatomy and what the images demonstrated, so that when I'm deposing the doctor I can effectively articulate the science that is involved and the malpractice that took place. It’s a challenge, but I love it because every case is different. You are always learning.
LD: Stepping back for a moment, you went to Grossman Roth right after you finished your law degree, right?
NC: Yes. I knew that I wanted to finish my education quickly, so I graduated high school a year early, at 16. And then I graduated college early. So, when I started law school, I was 19.
Obviously, I didn't necessarily want to use my door to Grossman Roth because I didn't want to put my mom in that spot. But what Neal Roth said was, "Come in and do an interview and if we click, then I'll give you an opportunity to clerk for the summer." And we just hit it off. Our styles are very similar, and I never left. So, this is where I’ve been working since I was 20 years old and he's been the most amazing mentor.
LD: How has he been a mentor to you?
NC: He took me under his wing. We would handle cases together in the beginning, and we still do on a few select cases a year. I very much enjoy practicing with him because he works harder than any attorney I know, and he gives it his all. He is also a talented negotiator. Those are skills you have to learn if they’re not something you have a natural ability at, so watching him take depositions and strategize over the years has been so amazing.
LD: You mentioned the two of you have similar styles. How would you describe your style?
NC: I am tenacious when I believe in a cause and I’m not a “winger.” Some lawyers use their bravado and don't have to prepare as much. I've never been like that. When I was in law school, I was the one who had the color-coded, 30-page outlines. Now I am the malpractice lawyer with the bookmarked and highlighted 10,000-page medical chart. But no lawyer in the case knows the record better than me. I just feel most confident when I am 100 percent prepared and that has served my clients well.
I also think my style involves having empathy for my clients because of the cultural perspective I have. I was the only Hispanic lawyer in my firm for many years, and I’m still really the only Hispanic female lawyer here. So, when we have a Hispanic client, obviously I can speak their language and connect on another level. I can also empathize with them because we grew up in the same community, so, culturally, I have an understanding that makes me a better advocate.
LD: I know you recently authored an article discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion, particularly at the partner level. Why do you believe that is so important?
NC: Well, what I'm finding is that, especially with Latina lawyers and women attorneys of color, they may get their foot in the door, but then they don't seem to progress to the higher ranks of their law firm. They don't feel supported, and the statistics reveal that staggering numbers are ultimately leaving the practice of law. That really upsets me because you should feel heard and valued after working so hard. I think part of the solution is just a matter of increasing a firm’s diversity so that more diverse voices can be heard. And that diversity only helps the firm. The studies are clear: Diverse firms foster creativity, better serve clients and generate more revenue.
It is a win win and is the reason I am so passionate about mentorship. Right now, I have two mentees. I have a college graduate and high school student I’m mentoring, for example. They have been in the office and have shadowed me on depos and hearings. And the high school student will call me and say, "Next semester I have these pre-law classes – which ones do you recommend?"
LD: Wow, as a high school student, that's amazing.
NC: As a high school student, because I think the earlier you start the better. I have another whom I started mentoring when she was in high school and now, she's a partner at one the largest and most prestigious South Florida firms. And then I also do mentorship programs through the Florida Justice Association.
LD: Tell me a bit about those programs.
NC: Right now, I’m interviewing candidates for an internship program that matches minority law students with FJA law firms doing personal injury work. And then I’m putting together an inaugural workshop with Big Brothers Big Sisters for our annual conference. While we're there for our annual convention, I said, "Why don't we take the opportunity to try to do some mentoring there, since we have all our members gathered?" As it's a statewide organization, it’s unique that we're all together. I'm hoping in the next few years, we'll have high school kids all throughout the state being able to really have a mentor to look up to so they can see themselves in their shoes. I think that's so important.
LD: What do you find fulfilling about mentorship – specifically, mentoring younger students?
NC: I think it's the exposure – just giving them the opportunity to see themselves as a reflection of you – that’s so powerful. Because, again, I was fortunate to have my mother in the legal arena, but really all the people in the firm, at the time, were older men. I really didn't identify with them, and I was kind of intimidated. But, as part of a middle school project, my mom put me in touch with two female lawyers that specialized in malpractice.
That always sticks out in my mind because they were female and practicing that type of law and telling me, "You can do it too. Come hang out with me for a day." And then I just realized, "If she can do it, I can do it, too." Having mentors that reflect you and mirror what you look like and where you come from is so powerful. So, for me, to be able to now do that for others is extremely rewarding.
LD: Absolutely. And then you also manage the medical malpractice division, right?
NC: Yes. We have eight medical investigators and about a dozen or so support staff who I oversee. I also helped implement and manage the firm's case and document management systems, so the technology part of it. I worked with IT to customize our case management program to our practice, and I also work on marketing our firm. All of that is part of what I do.
LD: Have you had any particular joys or challenges with balancing management and your own practice?
NC: I think management is always difficult. It can be stressful at times because of managing personalities and HR issues, especially when you're so busy practicing law, so sometimes it can get a little overwhelming. But we are blessed to have such a great team right now. I believe all of the work these past decades is really paying dividends now – the case management system, the diversity – has all led up to an exciting future. I feel like we're at a jumping-off point where the firm is only going to get better and surpass our past success.
LD: Speaking of your practice, can you tell me about any recent cases or wins you've had?
NC: Well, because of Covid-19, obviously, trial practice has been a little delayed. But now the pendulum has swung the other way with Courts helping to push our cases through the backlog. This year has been busy in terms of trial settings and juggling pre-trial deadlines but hopefully this year we’ll be able to try a few. But because we're so selective in the cases we handle, especially with the medical malpractice cases, they tend to be cases that the defense does not want to let you get to a jury, and so they resolve.
LD: Sure. I’m sure many of the matters you handle are so emotional. Are there any cases that have impacted you the most?
NC: Cases involving brain damaged children are so moving, especially when we’re able to change hospital policies. I handled a case with Stuart Grossman a number of years ago which involved a young girl who had suffered a profound hypoxic brain injury when she suffered respiratory distress while in an MRI machine that was not timely recognized nor treated.
She was having a study performed, suffered a seizure and needed to be urgently resuscitated. They didn't have a pediatric crash cart in the radiology suite that she was in – that wasn't a standard for them. Even though they saw pediatric patients through the ER and that's where she had come in through, the radiology department only had the adult-size crash carts, but not the pediatric kits with smaller endotracheal tubes necessary for intubating children.
As a result of that case, not only were we able to get her the best care possible, but the hospital used the case to teach the nurses about how to avoid that happening in the future, and they changed their policy. Now, they made sure to have pediatric crash carts available in their radiology suites.
LD: That’s such an incredible, tangible impact.
NC: Right. Many of the families I represent say that part of the reason they’re taking action is because they don’t want what happened to them to happen to someone else. When you are able to achieve an actual policy change through their grief and their misery, they know that they were able to hopefully prevent that from happening to someone else. I don’t want to say that there’s a silver lining in a tragedy, but at least there's something for them to hold onto – the knowledge that at least they made a positive change and spared another family from suffering the same pain.
LD: I’m sure you must become so close with the families during those cases.
NC: Absolutely. I'm the type of lawyer where my clients have my cell phone number, and we text each other. I have so many clients that text me all the time. And I'll text them when I remember it's their birthday. I have invited clients to my home for dinner long after their case is resolved. I try to keep that personal contact with them, because you're going through the most difficult period of their life with them. Many times, more than anything, a lot of them just need somebody to talk to and be a friend to them. It's so amazing how that connection can be so deep. I've tried to establish that with all our clients.
There was a case that Neal and I arbitrated several years ago that involved a woman who was not diagnosed timely and ended up developing metastatic breast cancer. And we still keep in touch. She's been going through therapies and fighting her fight. We send each other Mother's Day notes and I still include her in my prayers. The connection is deep.
LD: That’s incredible. Stepping away from the office, what do you do for fun to counteract the pressure from the weight of those cases?
NC: Right now, I'm a mother of a teenage boy, who never ceases to amaze me and keeps me busy with all his activities. I also have a daughter who's graduating from FSU. She now wants to pursue her master’s in occupational therapy and work with special needs children. She has a beautiful heart. So, my free time is spent with my family. My husband and I love to entertain, so we host a lot of family gatherings. We built a pizza oven outside in our terrace and we enjoy having friends and family come over to make their favorite pies. He's the oldest of nine siblings and my family all live in Miami so there's always somebody coming over that we're cooking for. That's what I enjoy most, just spending time with them and traveling whenever we can. Because of all the tragedy I see in my line of work, it makes even the smallest moments spent with my family all the more precious.