Nadine Thornton's path to law school began on and around her father's farm on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Working with nearby Native American communities, she witnessed the challenges of unemployment and poverty they faced, and was motivated to help find solutions.
"I always believed that creating opportunities for business investment in tribal communities would create sustainable change benefiting people on a fundamental level for years to come," she says, citing fellow Cornell Law School alum Sharice Davids '10, who started a successful coffee company and community development corporation on the Pine Ridge Reservation. "The desire to drive investment in such a complex legal and economic environment drove my desire for a J.D./M.B.A."
Engaging with Diverse Perspectives
Thornton was drawn to Cornell, where she could earn a joint J.D./M.B.A. in three years and take advantage of the university's vast and interconnected resources. "I wanted the opportunity to learn from people in all parts of the school and to engage in a diverse array of fields," she recalls.
She not only benefited from these resources but also contributed to them. As a member of the Native American Law Students Association (NALSA), and its president during her 2L year, Thornton helped plan several events. In the spring of 2015, she and former NALSA president Rose Petoskey '15 organized the Cornell Tribal Economic Development Summit, the first forum of its kind at Cornell. Bankers, lawyers, tribal leaders, politicians, environmentalists, and academics converged to share their perspectives and were joined by students from across the university.
Petoskey recalls, "The summit was a great success and featured many Native alums who are prominent figures in the Indian law and policy world. Nadine has an unparalleled work ethic, and I'm so happy we were able to work together to bring Indian law- and policy-focused events to Cornell Law."Two faculty members who supported Thornton's work on the summit and also influenced her throughout her experience at Cornell Law School were Gerald Torres, the Jane M. G. Foster Professor of Law, and Charles K. Whitehead, the Myron C. Taylor Alumni Professor of Business Law and director of the Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship Program.
Torres, an adviser to NALSA, shared his deep knowledge of Native American issues as a panelist and speaker at a number of Thornton's events. Over the summer of her 1L year, Thornton served as a research assistant for Torres's work on the American Law Institute's Restatement of the Law Third: The Law of American Indians. "I always found his insight both challenging and important," she says.
Whitehead guided and supported Thornton as she navigated the J.D./M.B.A. curriculum and explored job opportunities. She recalls, "His mock interview was the toughest I encountered during the 2L recruiting season." Whitehead also advised her on her work as a fund manager for Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management's student-run Big Red Venture Fund.
"Nadine brought to her work at the Law School, and brings to her career, a remarkable commitment to driving change in underserved communities," says Whitehead. "She brings an intelligence, diligence, and breadth of interest in business and the law that have quickly made her a formidable force in whatever she pursues. More impressively, she does it with a smile and an ability to work closely with others that make it easy for everyone to work with her."
He adds, "In short, Nadine is a 'triple threat'-commitment, intelligence, and leadership-and, as both a professor and Cornell alumnus myself, someone whom I'm proud to have join the Cornell alumni ranks."
Thornton's professional career began while she was still an undergrad at Arizona State University. She founded her own real estate-investing business and operated it from 2010 to 2013.
As a law student, she spent her 2L summer performing a summer associateship at the Houston, Texas, office of New York firm Simpson Thacher, which, she says, "has given me significant opportunities to give back to the communities I feel most connected to." There she contributed to a pro bono project involving indigenous individuals in a South American country, engaging with her passion for fair and responsible economic development for tribal peoples.
Thornton finished out her summer with a public interest fellowship through Simpson Thacher, serving Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS), which provides affordable home ownership and rentals for low- to moderate-income residents. "The role allowed me to contribute to my community using my real estate experience and the legal knowledge I acquired from Cornell Law," she says. Over the next year, she served as a board observer for INHS.
After graduating with her J.D./M.B.A., Thornton headed back to Simpson Thacher's Houston office, where she is now a corporate associate working in banking and credit and in mergers and acquisitions. She's well equipped for the job, thanks in large part to her years at the Law School.
"Beyond just learning how to think critically, 'like a lawyer,' I learned how to draft security agreements, S-1s, and the like, because I took a number of the deals seminars Cornell Law offers," she notes. "These gave me hands-on practice with tasks that I do now as a Big Law associate. In addition, Professor Whitehead's deals course taught me the building blocks of a corporate transactional practice."