Updated: Jul 6, 2021
Growing up with a dad who is an immigration attorney, Sonia Russo always had an interest in the law. However, it wasn’t until she attended a summer mock trial class that Sonia knew for sure that this was the career for her. Sonia was 10 years old, and the case was the real-life treason case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Sonia served as a defense lawyer, and says the experience was a wonderful opportunity to look at facts and learn how to tell a case. The students presented their case at the University of New Mexico School of Law mock courtroom in front of a jury of parents, and Sonia’s team won an acquittal (the real Rosenbergs were ultimately convicted).
After graduating from Boston College Law School, Sonia started her legal career at the New Mexico firm where she was a summer associate, Modrall Sperling, and feels fortunate to have worked there. She learned a lot about the nuts and bolts basics of litigation. Paul Fish, a well-regarded bankruptcy attorney and partner at Modrall, also taught her a lot about professionalism with opposing counsel. However, Sonia knew she wanted to be a prosecutor, and after a time, she thought she needed to make that change. She started at the Second Judicial District Attorney’s office in Albuquerque prosecuting non-violent felonies and eventually moved to violent felonies. She handled domestic violence and other violent cases, and by the end of her time at the DA’s office she was prosecuting four homicides as part of her caseload.
Sonia had previously told a partner at her former firm that she wanted to clerk but had never had the opportunity. He reached out to her while she was at the DA’s office to say that a friend had been appointed to the bench, and would she like to interview? That person was New Mexico Court of Appeals Judge Henry Bohnhoff, and she ultimately clerked for him. But before that, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory J. Fouratt of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico was the first judge to hire her to clerk, and she’s grateful for the faith he had in her that she could do the job. Sonia also clerked for Chief Judge J. Miles Hanisee of the New Mexico Court of Appeals. Sonia says her work on the New Mexico Court of Appeals, helping judges craft well-reasoned opinions that were ultimately published and became precedent, was a priceless opportunity. “That law continues to exist and hopefully provides good guidance.” She is grateful to have had the opportunity to do appellate work at that level.
As her final clerkship was ending, Sonia says she felt lucky because the end of her clerkships presented an opportunity to try something new. She had been to Denver to visit friends and to attend an ABA conference. She thought Denver was a ”really cool city” and applied to be admitted in Colorado on motion. Sonia describes Denver as a vibrant place with a lot going on. She appreciates how engaged Denverites are in their community and how active nonprofits and other community organizations are. She also felt that a bigger city might offer more opportunities professionally. Sonia applied to the Colorado Department of Law (DOL) and was hired in the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
Sonia describes her position in the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit as a rare unicorn in the legal field because they handle both civil and criminal matters. The unit conducts civil investigations into Medicaid providers suspected of committing fraud. They may then file a lawsuit under the Colorado Medicaid False Claims Act. The common fraud scenarios the unit sees are situations where claims are submitted for care that was never provided or where providers “upcode.” In upcoding, a provider submits a claim for a more complex or longer procedure than was actually performed. The unit also sees cases of worthless services — services that were provided, but were so deficient that they were useless. In addition to their civil caseload, the unit also handles criminal cases, including fraud cases and abuse and neglect cases perpetrated against Medicaid recipients. These cases typically involve negligent care or caretaker neglect, usually in long-term care facilities. Sonia says that with fraud, it’s not just dry, “there’s a story to be told and the numbers tell it.” She has to figure out how to present it to the jury. Sonia feels that abuse and neglect cases are important because “you have to stand up and say you can’t do this to vulnerable people.” Sonia recalls a recent sexual assault case in Lamar where local law enforcement wasn’t going to pursue the matter further. After her unit got the reports and decided there was a case, the defendant ended up pleading guilty. Sonia appreciates these opportunities to stand up for the most vulnerable.
For Sonia, one of the best parts of working at the DOL is working with colleagues who are incredibly intelligent and competent. The DOL has a diverse range of clients and matters it handles, and everyone is really good at their jobs. She says it’s great to work with people at the top of their game.
One of the most challenging parts of Sonia’s job is that a lot of cases get referred to their unit. They do investigations in-house and only have so many investigators. Because these investigations are very resource intensive, they may have to limit the scope of the investigation. For Sonia, this is challenging because she knows that the fraud is out there. She notes that Medicaid fraud affects all of us because there is finite funding for Medicaid, so when part of it goes to fraud, it means that Coloradans don’t have access to healthcare resources they otherwise would have.
Sonia is currently co-chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Impact Team at the AG’s Office with John Lee and Francis Senyah. Their team runs all the diversity-related initiatives for the office. Sonia is glad when someone tells her they felt they were part of a community and connected because of the team’s work. At the end of the day, their team is building community. Their mentorship program, run by Kevin McReynolds and Heather Kelly, has “been fantastic” in pairing people joining the office in 2020 with mentors. The team is also helping to roll out employee resource groups, which are affinity groups to help members of historically marginalized groups find each other. They are creating safe spaces for employees to have open conversations. Their goal is to provide fellowship and a community. They held a CLE for Black History Month on the Colorado Crown Act, which prohibits hair-related discrimination. For Pride Month, the team invited a trainer from Out Boulder County to speak on gender identity and invited History Colorado’s first curator of LGBTQ history to give a virtual lecture on the history of Pride. For Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, the team invited the Colorado Department of Law’s own Nga Vuong-Sandoval, an advocate for refugees, to share her story of being a refugee.
Sonia’s own mom immigrated to the United States from India in 1970, and Sonia describes her as tough as nails and very resourceful. Sonia says her mom has worked incredibly hard, putting in 14-hour days every day until COVID-19 forced her retirement at age 72. Seeing her mom do that to give her and her sisters a great education and access to resources like summer camps and after school activities gave Sonia a strong work ethic. Sonia feels the role that she plays as a person of color who is a prosecutor is important because she has a different perspective. When you have more people of color who are prosecutors, it helps the process to be more equitable. She’s always asking, “Is this fair? Is this equitable?” Sonia’s Indian heritage also impacted her career by motivating her at a young age to devote herself to public service. She recalls the first time she went to India at the age of five and witnessed terrible poverty. It made a deep impression on Sonia, and since then, wanting to make a positive difference in someone’s life has been at the core of everything she’s done.
Throughout her career, Sonia has been very active in bar leadership at the state and national levels. While she was chair-elect of the State Bar of New Mexico Young Lawyers Division, she saw the Texas Young Lawyers Association had a podcast. She thought it would be an effective medium to reach lawyers, especially young lawyers. She sensed that young lawyers needed to know they are not alone in dealing with common issues lawyers face. A podcast would allow young lawyers to share their stories with other young lawyers. She pitched the idea to the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, and as the host, creator, and producer of Young Lawyer Rising, she gets to decide the topics, interviewees, and questions, and harness the experience she developed as a reporter and executive producer for WBRU News at 95.5 WBRU FM in Providence, RI. In addition to her work with Young Lawyer Rising, which launched in April 2021, Sonia was also an ABA YLD Scholar from 2015-2016. And as the ABA YLD’s Public Service Coordinator and Director from 2017-2019, she started the Home Safe Home program to get lawyers involved in fighting domestic violence in their communities. Sonia was also named to the ABA’s 2021 On The Rise Top 40 Young Lawyers list. She has made lifelong friends through bar service and says her involvement has been a fantastic experience.
In 2016, Sonia wrote an article for the ABA’s Law Practice Today, “Be the Change: How Mentoring Can Improve Diversity in the Legal Profession.” Personally, she says she has benefited from the mentorship of the judges she clerked with. They made her a better lawyer and writer. She still keeps in touch with all three judges, and she still asks for advice. Sonia also counts Eric Burris at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in Albuquerque as a mentor. She says it’s important to have people you trust and people who believe in you and your skills. Her current supervisor, Bob Booth, has also been a mentor. Sonia advises that part of mentorship is just being open to it. “When people are giving you good advice, listen.” Sonia has also been a mentor through the University of New Mexico School of Law and the Law School Yes We Can Program, which pairs college freshmen with mentors in the legal field.
Sonia became involved with the CWBA relatively recently. She moved to Colorado six months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and joined because of Sarah Parady, John Lee, and Jen Carty. They all encouraged her to get to know some fantastic women (and men) who are forces for good in the legal community. She also got to know Kathryn Starnella, Gina Glockner, and Miranda Hawkins. She is now filling a new role as Racial Justice Observer. As Observer, she keeps an eye on issues that impact racial justice nationally and locally. She is also active with the Professional Advancement and Public Policy committees and the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment and Sex Discrimination in the Judicial System. Sonia sincerely appreciates how welcoming the CWBA has been. She says it is one of the most well-organized bar associations she has been involved with. She is appreciative to them for welcoming her and looks forward to meeting more members in person.
Outside of her work, Sonia has a dog, Milo, who she adopted from a shelter. You’ll find them hanging out and going for walks (Milo insists on four a day!). She enjoys attending the Colorado Symphony and is finding that Denver has an excellent food scene. She also ran the 2019 Honolulu Marathon and is training for the 2021 Colfax Marathon in October. What many might not know about Sonia when they hear this is that she is not a natural athlete. She has underdeveloped lungs and asthma because she and her twin sister arrived at 27 weeks. Sonia weighed only 2 lbs. 4 oz at birth. Her mom, a physician, worked hard to get them the care they needed, and eventually established the Prabhakar-Russo Neonatal Education Fund at the Presbyterian Healthcare Foundation in Albuquerque, which Sonia has also donated to because of everything the health care professionals at Presbyterian Hospital and the University of New Mexico Hospital did to save her life. Sonia is certainly a survivor!
Kate Noble is a CWBA Publications Committee member and a legal editor with Colorado Bar Association CLE, the nonprofit educational arm of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations.