“One piece of advice: whatever you do when you leave here, you’d better love it, because you’re going to be doing it six to seven days a week, twelve hours a day, for many, many years,” Lynda J. Grant '82 told the students gathered in Myron Taylor Hall’s new East Wing auditorium on February 17.
Grant was one of four alumni panelists visiting to share their insights on “Choosing a Career in Business Law,” presented by the Clarke Business Law Institute and the Dean’s Office. Panelist comments were followed by a Q&A session with the audience, moderated by event organizer Lynn Stout, distinguished professor of corporate and business law. “It is important for law students to think not just about getting a job, but about what kind of job they would likely thrive in,” says Stout. “Our Cornell Law School alumni can offer essential insights into how to choose and develop a business law career.”
The first of the panelists to speak was Mary Kay Braza '81, chair of the Sports Industry Team at Foley & Lardner and an outside counsel to Major League Baseball. Braza talked about her experiences as both a trial lawyer and a transactional lawyer, observing that litigation presents the gratifying challenge of quickly becoming an expert on a narrow field with each new case. The large-firm environment, she noted, provides opportunities to discover and hone strengths that can then be leveraged into involvement in interesting projects. Braza advised students "Acquire as many different types of opportunities as you can. You will always find ways to utilize that substantive knowledge you have acquired."
Braza was followed by Katherine Ward Feld, MBA '82, JD '83, special counsel for the SEC's National Exam Program, who said of her early law school days, "At one point, I had visions of being the next Atticus Finch." Prior to joining the SEC in 2013, Feld had a nearly thirty-year career in the private sector, working at major financial services firms in senior legal and compliance roles. Though Feld may not have followed precisely in Atticus Finch's footsteps, she observed that "the mission of 'truth and justice,' I think, is applicable to any practice area." For her, the field with the greatest draw was regulatory law. "What appealed to me most about being a regulatory attorney," she said, "is that I had the ability to be a builder . . . [figuring out] how to build a product that complied with the regulatory regime-and that's exciting."
Lynda Grant, up next, offered her second piece of advice: "If, seven years, eight years, ten years from now, you're in a big firm and you don't make partner, your life is not over." A plaintiff's class-action securities attorney who runs her own solo firm, Grant graduated in the " Bonfire of the Vanities days" when most of her cohort, herself included, were drawn to big, prestigious Wall Street or Park Avenue firms. After the firm she worked for went under, Grant found her way to plaintiff's work. Though a position at a plaintiff firm is less cushy than one at a large defense firm, Grant said, it offers more opportunities for new associates to get hands-on practice and is a good fit for those with an entrepreneurial mindset, guts, creativity, and an eye for opportunities.
Last to speak was self-described "token male" and "close to the shortest" panelist Ernie Schmider '82, a past member of the board of Russell Investments ETF Fund and former managing director of PIMCO. Schmider began his career in the M&A practice of a large Los Angeles law firm but, after ten years, snuck across the street to a head-hunter to escape his lawyering job. In his second career, serving a number of roles at an asset management company, he encountered the break-neck speed of the business world, where the deliberate approach characteristic of lawyers can "get you uninvited from meetings." "Every day is a weird day in business," observed Schmider, recalling, as an example, the time an executive's appointment crisis obliged him to drag a double-parked motorcycle out of the way with his Chevy Suburban. "Everything that you're learning in law school will help you evaluate risk," he said. "What you don't necessarily learn until you get into it and start practicing it is how to take risks."
The event was just one of many efforts by Stout and others at the Law School to provide resources that increase students' business literacy, a crucial attribute in the job market they will enter. Stout was recently quoted in the New York Times on how Cornell Law is preparing students for the business world.