It’s been 35 years since Herb Santos Jr. last roamed campus as a UNLV student. But neither time nor a successful legal career in a certain northern Nevada city has diminished his affection for his alma mater — particularly how it helped shape his adult life.
“UNLV gave me the confidence to believe in myself, to believe that I could overcome any hurdle,” said Santos, the UNLV Alumni Association's 2020 Alumnus of the Year. “As a student, I was encouraged to pursue my goal of being a trial lawyer, and I learned how to deal with adversity, make my own decisions, and live independently. Through that process, I became confident in the person that I am today. UNLV has never let me forget that while I don’t live in Las Vegas, I will always be a part of the Rebel family.”
Born and raised in Reno, Santos traveled south to Las Vegas for his undergraduate studies and after graduating in 1985 with a bachelor's in liberal arts, he wanted to remain in his home state to pursue a law degree. But when Nevada’s only law school at the time closed up, Santos headed to the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento, California, and earned his Juris Doctor in 1991.
Santos passed both the Nevada and California bars on his first attempt, then launched a career that has focused on personal injury and worker’s compensation. As the owner of his own Reno-based firm, Santos has litigated thousands of worker’s compensation hearings and appeals, arbitration cases, and jury and bench trials. His hard work was recognized in 2018 when the Nevada Justice Association named Santos its trial lawyer of the year. He also was recently selected as the 2020 Litigator of the Year by the American Institute of Trial Lawyers.
Outside of the courtroom, Santos sits on the board of governors for the Nevada Justice Association; is a member of the American Association for Justice and American Bar Association; is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation; and serves on the Nevada Tourism Commission. He’s also committed to serving his community through non-legal ventures, such as serving on the board of the Sierra Kids Foundation and assisting with fundraising efforts for other Reno-based charities.
The coronavirus pandemic has reminded all of us about the power and importance of being resilient. Share an example from your career that showed your resiliency.
Whenever I think about resilience in the face of adversity, I always recall my law school “curveball.” When I decided to attend Old College School of Law in Reno — which at the time was Nevada’s first and only law school — they were going through the American Bar Association accreditation process. It was important because, to take the Nevada bar exam, you had to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school. After completing my first year, the school announced it was terminating the accreditation process and closing its doors.
Upon receiving the devastating news, I drove to McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, where I requested, filled out, and submitted an application on the spot. I was admitted with one condition: I had to start all over with no transferred credits. I also had to quit my job as a social worker with a local nonprofit organization, move to a new city with my wife of one year, find a new job, and throw away the nearly $10,000 I had invested with Old College.
While many of my fellow classmates decided not to follow their law school ambitions, I knew my life’s path included a career in law and I wasn’t about to let something out of my control dictate my story. So I started all over, enrolled at McGeorge and secured a job with Sacramento County as a law clerk. After completing law school and passing both the Nevada and California bar exams on my first attempt, I received a job offer that put me on the path to where I am today.
I now look back on that period as a challenge to my character — it was the hardest time of my life, but it helped shape me into the person I am today. And for that, I’m grateful.
What advice do you have for today’s UNLV law students as they try to navigate our changed world?
When I was a kid, my dad would drive me to school every morning, and on those days that I was frustrated, he would always say, “It’s almost summer. You are a short-timer.” He was right. Before I knew it, that day’s difficulties became faded memories. The same theory applies to law school: It’s difficult, no doubt about it. But if you stick with it, you will get through it and eventually join the ranks of the profession. And when you get there, you’ll have the ability to help people in a way our Founding Fathers envisioned as fundamental to every citizen.
You must, however, always follow the ethical guidelines and responsibilities established by the profession. So even though the practice of law is adversarial, the most important piece of advice I could pass on to new lawyers is this: Never let a case become about you and the other attorney. When you develop a relationship of respect with opposing counsel, you place your client in the best possible position for a fair and reasonable resolution of their rights.
When you look ahead to UNLV’s next 20 years, what do you envision?
To look ahead, I first must look back in amazement at how far UNLV has come. When I graduated, there was no law school, no medical school, and no dental school. Today, UNLV not only has all three, but it has attained top research status by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.
So just as UNLV has exceeded my expectations over the past 35 years, I predict the same thing will happen during the next 20 years. That’s why UNLV is so special: There’s no ceiling to the ambitions and abilities of our students, professors, and administrators. I have no doubt the future will be filled with exciting advances and additional accolades as one of the nation’s best and most respected institutions of higher learning.