Zellnor Myrie '16
While most of the J.D. class of 2016 had bar exam preparations ahead of them when they graduated in May, Zellnor Myrie '16 had passed his exam in February. He was allowed to take the bar early and forgo classes during his last semester in order to work full-time as a pro bono scholar serving indigent clients. The move was in character for Myrie, who has long woven public service and community engagement into his professional and educational endeavors.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in communications from Fordham University in 2008, Myrie traveled to South Africa to perform community service through a church program. Upon returning to his hometown of New York City, he got a job working for a city councilman in the Bronx. It was there that he recognized the impact of legal expertise and decided to pursue a J.D. That decision would lead him to Ithaca.
"I wanted to go to a place that would not only provide the opportunity to be gainfully employed as an attorney, but that would also allow me to use my law degree in a versatile way throughout my career," he says. "There was no better option than Cornell. The small class size and deep connection to New York City made it an easy choice. I also knew that if I ever wanted to practice outside of NYC, Cornell's national reputation would smooth that path." He adds, "I also wanted to get away from the city for school!"
As president of the Cornell Law Student Association, Myrie had the opportunity to work with many members of the faculty and staff during his time on campus. "Because of this, I have a special place in my heart for the dean of students (both Markeisha Miner and Anne Lukingbeal) and the facilities staff," he says. "They keep the school running and worry about problems we never think about."
Among the faculty, Myrie cites Professors Sheri Lynn Johnson, Joe Margulies, and Marion Bachrach as major influences. "They all, in their own way, instilled a confidence and trust in me that I will never forget," he says. "Their dedication to developing great people, not just law students, is remarkable. All of them have done amazing work in the practice of law, which made it easy to follow their lead and accept their criticism. The fact that they were titans in their respective practices also made their interest in me very special."
Another important experience for Myrie was participating in the Capital Punishment: Post Conviction Litigation. "Working with some of the best attorneys in capital defense not only taught me how to be a great litigator and advocate; it sparked a passion for criminal defense and the integrity of our justice system that I didn't necessarily have prior to coming to law school," he recalls.
Also influential was the federal appellate practice course taught by Professor John H. Blume and Hon. Richard C. Wesley '74 of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. "Those two pushed us to new heights of legal writing and advocacy," Myrie says. They also led him to a job offer. The course culminated with students presenting oral arguments before the Second Circuit. One of the judges on Myrie's panel, Hon. Brian Cogan '79 of the Eastern District of New York, approached Myrie about taking a judicial clerkship.
Myrie notes, "I was very fortunate to land a clerkship with a great judge who is also a Cornell alum. I am most looking forward to improving my writing and learning how the law operates on a practical, day-to-day basis. One of the draws of a clerkship at the district court level is that you get to see the advocacy skills of many different attorneys. I look forward to learning best practices through this exposure." Myrie will undertake the clerkship in 2018.
In the meantime, he will begin his practice in the litigation group at Davis Polk & Wardwell, where he worked as a summer associate in 2015. He observes, "Much like Cornell, Davis Polk is filled with brilliant, down-to-earth people who enjoy working hard but who also don't take themselves too seriously." Myrie is excited to tackle the complex projects that await him.
He joins the firm with several months of pro bono experience under his belt. In February, he began working through the Pro Bono Scholars Program with Justice360, an organization dedicated to promoting a fair and just criminal justice system for capital defendants. "As a former death penalty clinic student, the choice for placement was easy," he says. "At Justice360 I immediately jumped into substantive work. I assisted on appellate arguments, traveled to South Carolina for investigatory work, and am still assisting on a larger project examining the cases of capital defendants who raised constitutional defenses but were still executed."
Myrie's commitment to service extends beyond his professional life. He says, "I do not consider myself exceptional; I have just been in the right place, at the right time, around the right people. My job, outside of work, is to provide those things-the place, time, and people-to those who do not have them. It's why I'm on my Neighborhood Advisory Board and why I work with local organizations to help with tenant protection and youth programming."
He adds, "Without the public schools, mentors, and family in my neighborhood, I would not be who I am today. Because of that, I feel a deep sense of obligation to give back. There were no lawyers in my community when I grew up, so I hope to serve as an inspiration to young kids-especially our young black men."