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Christina and Dean Fournaris '91: Shaped by an Intense, Rigorous Student Experience

Cornell Law School is known for the close-knit community that animates its small but driven student body. The camaraderie fostered here often lasts years after students have left, sustaining bonds both professional and personal between alumni – in some cases more than others. Take Christina and Dean Fournaris, both J.D. class of 1991. The two met at the Law School and belonged to the same group of friends. In their second year, both decided independently to pursue their post-graduation careers in Philadelphia. In their third year, they began dating. While the two worked long hours as associates at their respective firms, they continued their relationship. When they were fifth-year associates, they married.

“I love that we have Cornell Law in common,” says Christina. “We try to avoid talking about law too much at home (we have two children: Tommy, age thirteen, and Helena, age nine), but it is comforting to know that Dean understands the challenges of practicing law and that we have our memories of Cornell Law School.”

Christina and Dean were both drawn to the Law School in part by its intimate size and its small-town location. “I thought it would be wonderful to study law in a more bucolic setting rather than in a big city,” says Christina, adding, “I believe I was in one of the early classes to receive notification of admittance via telegram-it was truly exciting!”

At Cornell, the two found an intense, rigorous student experience. “I certainly remember the grind of attending and studying, especially first year in Hughes Hall around finals time,” says Dean. “On a certain level, the rhythm of that process does not change in private practice. In fact, as a mentor once accurately explained, it only gets more challenging the more senior you become. But, as in law school, you adjust and get used to the rhythm.”

Dean notes the importance of having a life and cultivating other interests during law school, as well as keeping a mind to pacing yourself (i.e., not wasting time in the beginning of the term only to be obliged to rush at the end). “I am the first to admit that I am a much better lawyer than I was a law student,” he concedes. “But I was twenty-two years old and did not know what many of my classmates knew. Then again, we had a very good time getting to know all the local (and not so local) drinking establishments, and it has all worked out in the end. So, I have no regrets.”

Another lesson Dean gleaned from his student experience was the importance of actively listening and synthesizing, rather than merely taking dictation. “I had a classmate and good friend who took no more than five sentences of notes per class and got A’s,” he recalls. “It was amazing to watch. Lecture after lecture, he listened and left with the kernels and left all the cobs and husks.”

Dean and Christina both found relationships immensely important during their time as J.D. students. Christina notes, “The focus on deep thinking, learning, and friendship at the Law School has shaped my values as a lawyer and set a really strong foundation and true respect for the practice of law. I lived in Hughes Hall my first year, and although at times I felt that it increased the intensity of the experience, it allowed us to form strong friendships and a network of support as we struggled together.”

Dean adds, “One noteworthy thing that I experienced and took away was very deep, personal friendships with six or eight wonderful classmates. The process of making and keeping those kinds of friends was and remains very important, personally and professionally. Being surrounded by really smart and capable people, with all of the give and take, is one of the things I liked best about being in law school and is one of the things I like best about being a lawyer today in private practice.”

The Law School faculty also proved highly influential. “There were an awful lot of great professors in the Law School when I was there, as there are today,” says Dean. “And, collectively, they certainly increased my overall level of academic humility. That said, I found Professors James A. Henderson, Faust F. Rossi, and E. F. Roberts to be particularly compelling. They were incredibly enthusiastic and passionate, wise, and, each in their own unique way, had acertain flair. To this day, I often invoke a Professor Roberts expression when advising franchisor clients in their relations with their franchisees-‘some times you have to rub the dog’s nose in the doo-doo.’ Simple, wise and true.”

Roberts and Rossi also made an impression on Christina, as did Professors Summers and Eisenberg. “They were brilliant and instilled a sense of focus and excellence which carries through to my practice today,” she says. “The extraordinarily high standards set by these professors and others were ingrained in me as a student and are part of my every day approach to thinking about legal issues today. Looking back, it was an honor to be sitting in those rooms at the Law School, surrounded by brilliant students and professors – it was quite intimidating. I was a bit introverted and shy at age twenty-two when I started law school; the approach of the professors noted as well as many others helped me grow as a law student and as a person.”

After her second year at the Law School, Christina took a summer job at Morgan Lewis, a move that would precipitate a career with the firm spanning twenty-three years thus far. After graduating, she joined Morgan Lewis’ Personal Law Practice Group, in which she is now a partner. “I am proud that I have had the opportunity to practice law at the highest level for so many years,” she says. “I have had some terrific mentors along the way, for whom I am grateful. Morgan Lewis has provided me a tremendous platform from which to practice law as well as opportunities along the way for leadership activities, for which I am also grateful.”

Regarding what excites her most about her current work, she says, “Every day, I am privileged to work with multigenerational families and family business owners and serve as a counselor and trusted advisor surrounded by talented colleagues. As an estate and gift tax lawyer, I have learned to discuss difficult, technical tax and estate planning topics with individuals and family business owners as well as discuss more personal and family issues that are intertwined with every decision. It is a transactional practice on an individual level at an international law firm, which is enormously satisfying.”

Dean, meanwhile, has practiced law at several firms over the years, including serving as a partner at Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney from 1998 to 2003 and at Ballard Spahr from 2003 to 2008. Currently, he is partner and co-chair of the Finance and Distribution Group at Wiggin and Dana. “I have some really wonderful clients,” he notes. “Several are very longstanding relationships that date back to when I was a fifth- or sixth year lawyer. Over time, I have had a role in helping to shape and train the members of those clients’ respective in-house legal departments. As those younger lawyers get promoted and the clients succeed, I feel a sense of pride and have had the pleasure of sharing in their success.” Other highlights of his practice, he says, are “pitching for work, getting hired, and achieving a great result. I also like being able to focus on a single thing that I find fascinating- franchise and distribution systems/branded retail-all day, every day.”

In the midst of his busy practice, Dean has also found time to contribute to the Law School, including visits in 2012 and 2013 to serve as a judge in the annual Transactional Lawyering Competition. “As time goes on, I appreciate more and more the central role the Law School and my attendance at the Law School had in shaping my life,” he observes. “Other than my family, the Law School probably had more of an impact in shaping the trajectory of my life than anything else. I probably did not return to the Law School for ten years post-graduation. Now, I jump at the chance, especially if there will be an opportunity to meet with friends-like at the Transactional Lawyering Competition.”

Christina, for her part, was recently invited to join the Cornell Law School Alumni Executive Board. “I am thrilled to participate,” she says. “I hope to continue to work to generate additional interest in alumni activities in the Philadelphia area. I owe a tremendous amount to the Law School and am grateful to be in a position to give back.”

To current and ascending law students, she has this advice, “I would treasure every aspect about the luxury of learning on a beautiful campus with like-minded peers. I went straight from high school, to college, to Law School. Although my career path has worked well for me, I did not have a lot of perspective other than as a student while at the Law School. It is so arduous, that it is easy not to take the time to look up and look around and truly treasure the opportunity to be at Cornell Law. There are many wonderful opportunities to take advantage of, including opportunities at the Business School and other schools at Cornell. I would encourage students to be open minded about all of the opportunities available at this world-class university.”

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