Reach the Summit with Raquel Guzman

by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus

On August 20, 2016, Raquel Guzman stood near the apex of the planet.

“It was just us and the mountain,” she said.

After an arduous eight-day ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of the seven highest peaks in the world, Guzman had just completed her first high-altitude climb; one of many to come.

Thousands of miles away, at Avanti Law in Grand Rapids, a law firm of which Guzman is a founding member, her business partner Robert Alvarez wondered if she would make it to the top.

“She surprised all of us,” he laughed. “And, of course, she was sending text messages and emails along the way about what needed to be done at the firm.”

The image of Guzman making her way to the top of the world while also keeping an eye on her law firm is comical, and upon getting to know her, perfectly fitting.

Avanti

Born and raised in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, Guzman describes her beginnings as humble, often going for periods of time without running water or electricity.

As a child, she was a relentless social advocate, even taking a stance for women to have the right to choose while she attended a strict Catholic school.

“I was very active in voicing the things I believed in,” she said.

Upon moving to Puerto Rico at age 20, it became apparent to her that she had a future in law.

“I always wanted to be an agent of change and help people with legal matters,” Guzman expressed.“I wanted to be a lawyer so I could be in court fighting for what is right. I thought it was the easiest way to accomplish helping others.”

Her search for the best law schools brought her to the Michigan State University College of Law. When she enrolled, she was confronted with a tremendous challenge: For the first time in her life, she was taking classes in English.

“It was very hard,” she recalled. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. Until that point, I had a limited knowledge of the English language.”

Guzman’s tenacity is nothing short of inspiring. From the very beginning, she persisted through obstacles on her journey to realize her ambition; she took the Law School Admissions Test, which is only available in English, three times.

“People give up because they don’t assess their situations realistically,” she mused. “I had just arrived in America and was learning English, so I knew it was going to be difficult. I just said, ‘Okay, I’ll just get ready for next time.’”

At MSU, she poured herself into her studies, recording her classes in English then translating them into Spanish and back again. Her determination paid off: She graduated at the top of her class.

“I learned that when you are diligent, you get results,” she expressed. “I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I will work harder.”

Upon graduating, Guzman joined Warner, Norcross and Judd LLP., one of the state’s top law firms, where she practiced law for four years.

“I always wanted to be an agent of change and help people with legal matters,” Guzman expressed.“I wanted to be a lawyer so I could be in court fighting for what is right. I thought it was the easiest way to accomplish helping others.”

In 2010, she branched out on her own and partnered with attorneys Robert Alvarez and Megan Moore to establish Avanti Law. The firm’s growth has been expeditious; what began as three lawyers and one paralegal has since grown to 26 full-time employees. Today, Avanti is the largest woman and minority-owned firm in West Michigan, and Guzman is the managing member, a role for which Alvarez says she
is perfectly suited.

“Raquel is business savvy; she is a financial wizard,” Alvarez commented. “And she has a very big heart.

We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for her.”

Being a Latina lawyer in West Michigan puts Guzman in an advantageous position to help clients whose first language is Spanish; Alvarez says that around 50 percent of Avanti’s clients are Hispanic residents seeking assistance with immigration cases.

When discussing her experience as an attorney, Guzman’s disposition is earnest, and it’s clear that her clients are of the utmost importance to her.

“My goal is always to be the voice for who I am representing and be able to do a good job for them,” she stated. “Our cases are our lives.”

Guzman’s commitment to clients is matched by her dedication to her team; she has a robust reputation as a manager who goes above and beyond to ensure her staff is happy and fulfilled in their work and personal lives.

“We believe even the person who receives the mail or answers the phone is as important as our attorneys,” she commented. “We wouldn’t be who we are without the right support, and we decided to recognize everyone early on. We do a lot of things to maintain the camaraderie and the culture of our office.”

On Tuesdays, Avanti treats their staff to tacos and happy hour at a different restaurant; they offer networking opportunities every Thursday; and every two years, they close for five days while the entire staff is at a retreat — once held in Jamaica and once at Disney World — that is paid in full by the firm. Additionally, the firm owns a timeshare that is available for any employee to use for any amount
of time based on the number of weeks available each year.

“Doing these things allows us the opportunity to get to know each other and trust each other and seemingly work together better,” Guzman smiled. “We have a great team; everyone is smart and independent with an incredible sense of justice. We are about their growth and success and happiness.”

Rocio Osorio has been working as a litigation paralegal for Avanti for almost a year and testifies to the environment Guzman and her partners have cultivated.

“I don’t feel like I am at work,” Osoria commented. “I feel like I am with family.”

The Summit

Guzman is both a dreamer and a realist, qualities that espouse in perfect symmetry; her ambition is substantial, and her ascent in both her personal and professional life has been guided by sound logic and substantial ambition. This is perhaps best personified by her life as a mountain climber and world traveler (she has been to 52 countries and counting).

“Even with all the struggles, I loved the challenge and the way I connected with my surroundings. You can feel the wind, you can smell the soil— it’s a beautiful experience.”

 

She began climbing in 2016 with her husband, Rene, an avid mountaineer. She has since scaled five mountains. Besides a training excursion on Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic (10,164 ft), Mt. Kilimanjaro was her first summit. At 19,341 feet, the mountain’s elevation is surpassed only by Mt. Dali, Mt. Aconcagua and Mt. Everest. Categorized as an extreme altitude trek, the rapid rate of incline on Kilimanjaro is no easy feat.

“Climbing my first mountain was very, very, very hard,” she expressed.

“Even with all the struggles, I loved the challenge and the way I connected with my surroundings. You can feel the wind, you can smell the soil— it’s a beautiful experience.”

In July, Guzman and her husband embark on an expedition to climb Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan; and next year, the pair ventures to Antarctica, meaning she will have been to all seven continents, but she is not stopping there.

“We are preparing to climb Mt. Everest in 2020,” she said excitedly.

Although they won’t be summiting (a dangerous endeavor that has claimed the lives of nearly 300 people to date), they plan to reach Everest Base Camp, which at 17,600 feet, is a significant altitude. As she reflects on her past excursions and talks about her upcoming journeys, Guzman glows with anticipation.

“I’m so excited,” she smiled. “It’s going to be such an amazing adventure.”


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When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, enjoying live music, and practicing kung fu. She is also the owner of Your Story, a personal biography writing service for senior citizens.


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