Their Defining Moments
BY MELISSA PAYTON No one ever said that becoming a lawyer would be easy. Three years of graduate school-with its coursework, exams, memorization, moot court, clinics, and internships-can sometimes overwhelm even the most talented and determined law students. Today’s graduates also face the prospect of finding gainful employment in the most difficult economic environment in decades. But even in a recession, Cardozo graduates are landing top-notch jobs and clerkships. How do they do it? Nearly all of the highly accomplished 2009 Cardozo School of Law graduates interviewed here said they received an extra push from a mentor or from their involvement in a clinic or extracurricular commitment that gave them the confidence to press on toward their goals. These turning points, or defining moments, ranged from gaining an editorial spot on a law journal to discovering a talent for litigation or volunteering for a law-related project.
A GROUNDBREAKING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION WAS THE setting for two new graduates’ "eureka" moments; both participated in Cardozo students’ election-protection efforts during the November 2008 vote in Ohio.
Alisha Williams, who was vice president of the Black Law Students Association at Cardozo, admits that she had "senioritis" during her third year, avoiding extracurricular activities and struggling to stay focused-until she joined the 40 Cardozo students and professors who traveled to Cleveland for training in Ohio election law and worked as pollmonitors on Election Day. The effort "reinvigorated" her, she says.
"As one who has experienced the difficulties of trying to plan a small panel event in the moot court room, I am in awe of the group effort that took place behind the scenes to plan the logistics of the trip," she says.
Williams says that two other volunteer commitments were personally rewarding. A member of the national advisory board of the Student Hurricane Network (an association dedicated to helping communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita), she says of her colleagues: "Their work ethic and commitment to social justice helped push me through law school during the periods when I felt discouraged." Similarly, the compassion and dedication of staff members at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which works to guarantee that all people are free to determine their gender identities, gave her heart, even when being an advocate was emotionally draining.
Williams is working at Lopez McHugh LLP in Philadelphia.
Alison Brill, an aspiring public defender who is clerking for New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry T. Albin, also volunteered for the election project in Ohio. Several of her fellow volunteers, writing in the December 2008 issue of the Cardozo Jurist, offered heartfelt stories of persuading firsttime voters to persist despite long lines and confusion over ID requirements.
"During this long day, speaking with local voters and witnessing the complications of ensuring adequate proceduresto protect the right to vote, I felt the awesome responsibility of being a lawyer in this society," Brill says.
Brill feels she also benefited from her clinical work in the Innocence Project and the Criminal Defense Clinic, representing clients, scrutinizing criminal cases, and performing legal work alongside compassionate mentors.
"This is what I came to law school to learn to do, and these experiences made me more confident in the decisions I had made," she says. Brill, who was active in a half-dozen Cardozo student organizations, won the Andrew S. Zucker Award for her commitment to community activism and the legal profession; she also received the Benjamin N. Cardozo Writing Award.
Gaining the self-assurance to become a lawyer is a theme for many Cardozo graduates. Cindy Abramson, whose unconventional background includes working in circuses as a trapeze artist and "hula hoopist," initially wanted to do transactional work. But her Legal Writing professor, Victoria Kummer, encouraged her to go into litigation.
"She gave me the confidence I needed to believe that I could be a good lawyer one day and put me on a path that I am now very excited about," Abramson says. Abramson, who was the senior notes editor for the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, is working in litigation at Morrison & Foerster in New York City.
Sometimes all it takes is some recognition from a faculty member during the first year, when many law students are questioning their career paths. Steven Keslowitz, executive editor of the Cardozo Law Review, had already published two books on the Simpsons cartoon family (The Simpsons and Society and The World According to the Simpsons) by the time he entered Cardozo, but getting picked to be a summer research assistant by Prof. Lester Brickman was key to his next two years.
"It was a very important personal boost, which is critical during the first year," Keslowitz says.
Keslowitz went on to publish two more books while he was at Cardozo: The Tao of Jack Bauer and From Poland to Brooklyn: The Lives of My Grandparents, Two Holocaust Survivors. Through his law review experience, he learned that he enjoyed the editing process as well, and now works in Debevoise & Plimpton LLP’s intellectual property department.
Developing skills through academic or practical work can also bolster a future attorney’s determination to succeed. Keslowitz and Marvin Mills, another 2009 graduate with an unusual background, both singled out Prof. Max Minzner for his ability to bring out their best student work.
Mills spent four years as a survival, evasion, resistance, and escape specialist for the US Air Force, training American troops to resist abusive enemy interrogations, before enrolling at Cardozo and becoming a champion moot court competitor.
"I attribute much of my analytical skill to the time spent both as Professor Minzner’s student and as one of his teaching assistants," Mills says. Mills, who was president of the Black Law Students Association, is working at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in its finance and restructuring department.
Nathaniel Scott Boyer came to Cardozo with a journalism degree and writing experience, and was editor-in-chief of the Cardozo Law Review. Still, he had much to learn about legal writing and analysis, he says, and he honed his abilities while working with Prof. Margaret Lemos as a student, research assistant, and teaching assistant.
Lemos "instilled in me the value of making careful and thoughtful decisions, seeing both sides of any argument, and anticipating problems," Boyer says. "She broke me out of the non-lawyerly mode of superficially glancing over a problem’s nuances."
His Criminal Appeals Clinic stint representing an indigent criminal appellant was also rewarding, Boyer says. "It made me a much more persuasive writer, and I was thrilled to make a difference in the life of someone who had been at the mercy of a system that was stacked against him." Boyer is working in litigation for Hogan & Hartson LLP.
For Meryl Rothchild, the Mediation Clinic directed by Prof. Lela Love was an important way to boost her communication skills. She also took heart from making the regionals in negotiation competitions in her second year. "That was the time when I started to believe in myself and gain confidence as an impromptu public speaker," Rothchild says. "Another defining moment was learning that I had been elected as editor-inchief of the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal. Now that was an honor."
Like Mills, Rothchild is working in financial restructuring, but at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP.
Some law students find that being pushed beyond their comfort zone brings dividends. Virginia Tomotani Uelze found herself in family court just four weeks into her first year at Cardozo, advocating for a battered woman who was seeking a temporary restraining order.
"The judge addressed me and my classmate as ‘counselor,’ and even though the title was premature, it was exciting and I was inspired by everything that one word evoked," she says. During Uelze’s third year, Prof. Toby Golick, her supervising attorney in the Bet Tzedek Legal Services Clinic, prodded her as well. "Under her guidance, I had a number of first experiences: counseling and interviewing clients; drafting a will; representing a client at an administrative hearing; and most unforgettably, taking a deposition."
Uelze, a trilingual (English, Spanish, and Portuguese) former marketing manager from Sao Paulo, Brazil, was the articles editor for the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal. She is now working at the New York offices of Jones Day.
Defining moments aren’t confined to future lawyers. Sigit Ardianto has been practicing law in Jakarta, Indonesia, since 2004; an emerging legal scholar in his homeland, he has just completed Cardozo’s LL.M. program in Comparative Legal Thought. He was so galvanized by several of his courses that the lessons he learned may come to influence legal education in Indonesia.
Ardianto says Prof. Michel Rosenfeld’s Comparative Constitutionalism course made him want to apply what he learned about legal theory to his country’s constitutional issues when he returns to Indonesia. But he says his defining moment at Cardozo came from the First Amendment class taught by Prof. Marci Hamilton. Although the Indonesian constitution guarantees many of the same rights as the US Constitution, victims of religious and other kinds of persecution cannot directly ask the courts there for help; through Hamilton’s teaching, he was convinced that change is needed.
"Thanks to her class and to her role in First Amendment issues in the United States, I am inspired to do more in raising awareness of the need for constitutional complaint in Indonesia, in hopes that someday it will be accommodated within the Indonesian legal system."
Ardianto was offered a job at a New York law firm, but plans to return to the law firm DNC in Jakarta, where he was an associate before coming to Cardozo. He has other aspirations as well: "My dream is to establish a new, progressive law school in Indonesia that could meet international legal education standards, and perhaps mimic Cardozo’s success," he says.
—VIRGINIA TOMOTANI UELZE