Alumni Profile: Robert Mendez, Class of 1980
Robert Mendez, Class of 1980
When Robert Mendez came to King Hall, he wasn't sure what kind of lawyer he wanted to be. "I only knew that I wanted to make a difference," he said. Today, he can look back on a rich and varied career that includes work as a prosecutor for the California Attorney General, 25 years of practicing entertainment law with the Walt Disney Company, Paramount Pictures, and NBC, and his current position as Senior Vice President for Diversity at Disney/ABC Television Group, and know that he's succeeded at every step along the way.
"My law degree has enabled me to do things I never imagined were possible for me, and I'll always be grateful to UC Davis School of Law, my classmates, and my teachers for the opportunities that have come my way," said Mendez, a member of the King Hall Class of 1980. "As time has gone by and I have gained perspective, I've realized that my experience at UC Davis was one of the most important influences on my life."
Mendez grew up in predominantly Latino East Los Angeles, one of seven children of Mexican immigrant parents. He excelled in school, and earned admission to Pomona College, an elite liberal arts university, completing his undergraduate studies in 1977 and enrolling in UC Davis School of Law the same year. Mendez and his wife, Trudy, whom he'd married while a student at Pomona, found King Hall to be a "comfortable, nurturing environment" that helped them deal with the pressures that came with law school--and the birth of their sons, R.J. and Michael. (Robert and Trudy Mendez have now been married for 35 years.)
"It was a very challenging time for us, with me in law school, both of us working, and my two sons being born," he said. "But we felt like we were in a unique environment, surrounded by interesting people with a broad range of perspectives. It was law school, so it was competitive to some degree, but it wasn't cutthroat. As a class, we were focused on our studies, but we had outside interests, and we made time for our families. I got to know just about every one of my classmates, and that made my time there very comfortable."
After passing the bar, Professor Clay Tanaka helped steer Mendez to a position with the California Attorney's Criminal Division, where he remained for two years. Feeling the need to return his family to Southern California, Mendez transferred to the Attorney General's Los Angeles office. A friend who worked at NBC suggested he consider applying for a job at that company, and a King Hall connection helped him to get the position. One of the members of the NBC legal department was Tracy Rich, a 1974 graduate of King Hall, and when she asked for references, Mendez was able to offer Professor Gary Goodpaster, with whom Mendez had formed a close relationship.
"It turned out Tracy knew Gary very well, and when she called him, he thankfully gave me a terrific reference, and without that I probably wouldn't have gotten the job," said Mendez.
"Part of the reason Professor Goodpaster was able to do that was because he had taken the time to know me as a person," Mendez continued. "We got to be friendly, and I felt relaxed around him, so we talked about all kinds of things. When NBC called, he was able to talk about me as a person and not just as a lawyer. That kind of thing is something unique that UC Davis can offer to its graduates."
Mendez quickly proved himself to be an outstanding entertainment lawyer, handling cases involving defamation, copyright, invasion of privacy, First Amendment rights, and other issues. He discovered he had a gift for negotiations, and moved on to join the domestic television division at Paramount Pictures Corporation, where he was responsible for contract negotiations for series ranging from Entertainment Tonight to Dr. Phil and rose to the position of Senior Vice President for Business Affairs.
"All of this was something that I hadn't really envisioned for myself, but I came to realize that I was, in my own way, making a difference," he said. "For most of the people I worked with, I was probably the only Latino attorney they had ever met. I realized that in this way, I was helping to change people's perceptions. I also knew that I was helping to open the door to other people of color."
In 2005, after an initial three-year stint as Senior Vice President of Business & Legal Affairs for Disney's Buena Vista Television, Mendez was offered the position of Senior Vice President of Diversity Programs with Disney/ABC Television Group, a position where he would have responsibility for advancing diversity strategies for various properties within the company as well as serving as liaison on diversity matters with government officials, advocacy groups, and others.
"When they offered this position, I thought, ‘There it is, the job I've been preparing for all my life...the opportunity to marry my passion with my skill set,'" said Mendez. Long a believer in the value of diversity, Mendez is now in position to help direct a major media corporation as it adjusts to an increasingly diverse society.
"If you watch television and movies today, you'll see a very different picture than what I saw as a young man, when there were far fewer people of color," he said. "What we used to call diversity is now the mainstream, and I'm proud to have played some small role in that change."
In addition, Mendez has made a difference through his volunteer work, which has included service as President of the Hispanic National Bar Association (1985-86) and his current duties as a board member of the Imagen Foundation and the National Association of Multi-Ethnics in Communications, and a member of the Federal Communications Commission Advisory Committee on Diversity.
He also has given to the Law School and volunteered as a speaker, meeting with La Raza Law Students and recently appearing as the guest lecturer in the KHOP program's "Lunch with a Legend" event.
"UC Davis was absolutely one of the really important influences on my life, and I feel like it's my responsibility to try to give something back to the Law School," he said. "I can never repay everything I derived from my legal education, but I can make an effort. That being said, I also find it really enjoyable to return to the Law School, to talk to young people and share advice and stories. I just get a kick out of it."