Nicole M. Sandoz '08 tackles the complicated issues of gender, race, and class with clear thinking and a warm heart. As an undergraduate, a law student, and even as a summer associate with a law firm, Ms. Sandoz has engaged problems related to feminism, rape and genocide, minority education, and poverty.
"I've always wanted to be a lawyer," Ms. Sandoz says. "My dad wanted me to look at different things, but I was always a singleminded child." Her father is a retired family court judge, her mother works for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, and her brother is a Macintosh computer consultant. With her interest in family law and child advocacy, Ms. Sandoz notes, she's combining her parents' careers.
Because of a family friend who attended Amherst College, Ms. Sandoz chose it for her undergraduate work. "I didn't really think about snow," she admits. "Then I discovered we didn't get snow days in college!" Studying political science drew her into the Amherst Feminist Alliance and counseling rape victims, which, she says, "shaped my college career." In a class about domestic violence, she learned about rape camps in the Bosnian war. That led to her senior thesis, "Rape as Genocide: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Destruction of Women's Bodies in Ethnic Conflicts." "I didn't come to any conclusions, but the research was amazing," she says.
After college, Ms. Sandoz decided to take time off before law school to experience the legal profession. "If I'm going to spend $150,000 on law school, it should be what I really want," she explains. She worked for a couple of years as a legal assistant for Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York City. "It taught me about the law firm life," she says. "I met a lot of great attorneys, who helped me with applications and wrote recommendations."
She chose Cornell Law School because of its reputation in international law. "I wanted to get back to my thesis, to find legal ways to help women," Ms. Sandoz explains. However, Cornell law professor Andrea J. Mooney, who serves as a law guardian in family court, changed her mind. "I had my lawyering class with Professor Mooney and did a direct study with her my second year," says Ms. Sandoz. "I was so lucky to have her for Lawyering— I love to write, and you can tell she loves to write." As a result, Ms. Sandoz continues, "Cornell ended up being the right school for me, but not for the reason I chose it."
She worked with Professor Mooney in the Child Advocacy Clinic, visiting the children that the program represents. "It opened my eyes to the class issue," Ms. Sandoz observes. "Seeing where the children start from broke my heart. If you live in one room, with no books, no one making you do your homework because your mom has to work two or three jobs, how do you get from there to Cornell Law School?
And it's important to remember that I had a lot of opportunities these children don't have. I can be an example, but I can't present myself as someone who knows what they're going through." At Cornell, Ms. Sandoz served as the president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA). "I tried to use the group as a forum to air their grievances, to give them support," explains Ms. Sandoz. "Law school brings up a lot of interesting issues, particularly in classes like constitutional and criminal law. The racist comments are mostly ignorance, but as a first-year, it's a lot to take." It helped, Ms. Sandoz notes, that law professor Sheri Lynn Johnson "knows the constitutional law cases that bring up those issues, and knows how to respond to students."
As president of BLSA, Ms. Sandoz says, "I worked with Associate Dean and Dean of Students Lukingbeal, who is the best asset for the Law School and who I adore." Their tasks included finding ways to increase the number of black students at the Law School and encouraging admitted students to choose Cornell. "We have a weekend where we show admitted students all the different sides of Ithaca," says Ms. Sandoz. "I tell them that in Ithaca, you can focus on your work. And you can go abroad. That's one of the best programs Cornell has."
In fact, Ms. Sandoz spent the fall 2007 semester at University College London, studying international and comparative law. "I had an amazing time," she exclaims. "I traveled every weekend—France, Italy, Switzerland. I love to travel." That love was kindled, rather than extinguished, by a visit to Russia while she was in high school. "That was my first experience with overt racism, with taunting at school," she recalls. "There was no other black person. My Russian family was great, but I was scared a lot of the time."
After graduating, Ms. Sandoz returned to Los Angeles to work for Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in employment litigation. As a summer associate for the firm, she focused on affirmative action—how to implement corporate law for companies who want to increase their diversity—and she continues work in that area now. "I think the idea behind those programs is admirable," Ms. Sandoz says. "But if a company is able to look at its employment practices and wants to fix the gap, there are very specific legal rules they have to use."
In Los Angeles, Ms. Sandoz also continues her volunteer work at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, providing help to lowincome families dealing with domestic violence. "I'm excited about my work with Paul Hastings, but I'll stay open to the possibilities," Ms. Sandoz says. "My dad always said that the first job you have is never the last job you have. I'll make sure I'm doing what I want to do."