Alumni Short

John Vukelj ’03: Engages the Human Element

Ithaca, NEW YORK, Spring 2014 FORUM

John Vukelj’s journey to Cornell Law School was inspired by events dating back to post– World War II Albania. His grandfather, an anti-communist fighter, was captured and, on the way to what would have been a show trial, executed. His grandfather’s family was declared enemies of the state and lost much of their land. “Suffice it to say that my family’s past helped shape my view of justice and the importance of the rule of law,” says Vukelj. “It’s a large part of what led me to go to law school.”

As for choosing Cornell Law specifically: “My boss at the time—not a Cornell Law grad—encouraged me to give it a look. As he put it, Cornell Law flies under the radar but is highly respected and turns out excellent law yers. I applied, got in, and then the Cornell gods did that thing where they magically make it 75 degrees and sunny on the day you visit campus. Cornell’s small class size, access to faculty, and remote location (seriously!) won me over. It turned out to be an excellent decision.”

At the Law School, Vukelj found the rigorous training that would enable him to thrive in the legal field. “Clients don’t want to just hear me recite black-letter law,” he explains. “They want creative and thoughtful solutions to their problems, presented in a way that they can understand. The way Cornell Law professors teach and constantly challenge students to think through issues undoubtedly prepares them to be successful in practice. It certainly helped me.”

He also notes the value of the school’s relatively small size: “The human element of our profession is so important. Clients entrust us with their most difficult problems, and other lawyers within my firm need to be able to trust me too. Being in an intimate environment at Cornell Law indirectly provided some training in dealing with all of the different types of people and personalities in our profession.”

Like his educational journey, Vukelj’s career path was deter- mined by a fortuitous choice. While still in school, he took a summer associate position with the global law firm DLA Piper. After graduating, he returned as a first year associate, and he’s been there ever since.

Now a partner in DLA Piper’s litigation practice, Vukelj focuses on securities litigation and enforcement matters, white collar and corporate internal investigations, and business litigation. His clients have included public, private, and nonprofit companies, as well as directors, officers, and employees of those companies.

Among his major projects, Vukelj assisted Senator George J. Mitchell in his investigation into the alleged use of performance enhancing substances by players in Major League Baseball. More recently, he has represented public companies and their executives in major securities fraud class action suits. He has been recognized as a New York Rising Star by Super Lawyers magazine over the last three years.

“Picking the single most exciting thing about my work, it has to be the courtroom,” he says. “The thrill of presenting your case in a complicated matter, hopefully before an engaged judge and against worthy opposing counsel, can’t be beat.”

In addition to his work at DLA Piper, Vukelj is also tackling some key initiatives as the president of the Law School’s Alumni Association. “Recently, we’ve been emphasizing two issues in particular,” he says. “The first is engagement of young alumni and, to some extent, current students. The legal market has faced significant upheaval over the last few years, and it’s important to use our alumni resources to help more recent graduates succeed in a marketplace that bears little resemblance to the marketplace before 2008. The second issue is engagement of LL.M. alumni. LL.M. class sizes have grown, naturally leading to a spike in the number of alumni. We’ve added LL.M. graduates to the Alumni Association Executive Board and are working on ideas to try to better engage our LL.M. alumni.”

On the theme of engagement, Vukelj has this advice for current and ascending Cornell Law students: “Get to know your classmates, including the LL.M.s. Social skills are im-portant; you’re now in Ithaca with some fascinating people, and having a network of friends and contacts from Cornell Law may serve you well down the line.”

His own Law School experience provides at least one striking example of how significant getting to know your classmates can be. “At the very beginning of my first year, on a humid night in late August, I met a classmate named Stacey,” he recounts. “We were at the
now-closed Royal Palm Tavern, and between the large, boisterous crowd and the blaring music, I couldn’t hear a word she said. But I was already being won over. A couple days later, we had lunch on the patio at Collegetown Bagels, and it turned out she had a lot of great, fascinating things to say, and I was smitten. We’re now married and have two kids. I certainly wasn’t expecting this as a takeaway from Cornell Law School, but needless to say, it has impacted my life immeasurably. Stacey makes me a better person and, by extension, a better law yer.”