The Top Law Students From The Class of 2016

Christine Kim of Duke University

Christine Kim of Duke University

Of course, the Class of 2016 found plenty of success in the classroom, too. George Mason’s Zeynep Elif Aksoy helped draft an amicus brief whose research was cited in a Supreme Court opinion. At the University of Washington, Manmeet Dhami noticed that many young adults struggled with gaining employment and educational opportunities because they couldn’t afford to pay costly fees to seal their juvenile records. As a result, she helped write a law that eventually enabled them to do just that. The UC-Berkeley’s Lora Krsulich was part of a team that developed a prison re-entry network in Newark, New Jersey, that placed more than 2,500 former prisoners in jobs and homes after release. Over two years, Duke Law’s Christine Kim tirelessly worked to launch a civil rights conference that eventually drew 150 speakers and 300 attendees. And in January, George Washington’s Julia Haigney was part of a duo that argued in front of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in the Van Vleck Constitutional Law Moot Court Competition finals.
In recent years, law school has turned into a punch line in some circles. Once the path to job security and high social stature, the profession has been hobbled by declining job prospects. If the best and brightest 3Ls are any barometer, however, the legal profession will be in quite capable hands for the next generation. Like attorneys before them, this group was attracted to the legal profession for a variety of reasons.
Many arrive to campus with a strong sense of purpose. Racheal M. White Hawk of Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law found that being an attorney was the best way for her to support tribal communities. And she was lucky enough to have a mentor in Judi Gaiashkibos, a Ponca woman who headed the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. “She taught me a lot about what it means to be a professional Native American woman and how I can use my skills to work for the betterment of Indian people,” White Hawk writes. “She encouraged me to go to law school and pursue my dreams. And she provided me with a lot of skills necessary for law school.”
Others, such as Andrés Cantero Jr. of the University of Southern California (USC) Gould School of Law, recognized a need in the legal profession and decided to fill it. While working as an intern in the Solano County Superior Court, Cantero glimpsed the real value of legal counsel in family cases like divorce and custody–particularly those who shared their values and heritage and truly understood their needs. “[The] advocates…hardy ever looked like [the people they represented] or understood where they came from,” Cantero noticed. “No one in my office spoke Spanish, and very rarely did I see a Latino attorney, yet an overwhelming majority of our clients were Latino. When I did my research, I realized that this was a reality across the country. Our profession does not look anything like the demographics in our country—especially in California. Therefore, I came in wanting to help others who could not help themselves.”
Meghan Hammond of Northwestern University

Meghan Hammond of Northwestern University

For some, the law was an extension of what they were naturally good at doing. “In college, I was a philosophy major,” shares Boston University’s Sabina Mariella. “[I] loved making arguments, poking holes in them, and then improving them. After I took a legal philosophy class, I realized that law school was something at which I could succeed.”
For others, the decision to pursue a law degree was based on deeply personal experiences. Duke’s Pearson saw the law as a way to protect people close to him. “My son had some run-ins with the law in his youth and I was at a loss as to how to advise him,” Pearson confides. “I never wanted to be in a position where I couldn’t advocate for the people I loved.” And Northwestern’s Hammond views law school as a way to both make an impact and pay homage to her mother. “Though she passed away before I really understood the work she did as an attorney,” Hammond concedes, “I have learned so much retroactively… I will never forget at her funeral the sheer number of people I didn’t know who came up to us with a story to tell about what my mother had done for them. Truly an astonishing, brilliant, and selfless woman.”
With two months left before graduation, many of these top law students have begun reflecting on the biggest lessons from their three years in the pressure cooker. Northwestern’s Hammond cracks that her big epiphany was to “read the whole thing.” USC’s Mary Alice DiPietro adds that,He who controls the drafting controls the deal.”
To survive heavy workloads and tight deadlines, Boston University’s Kelvin Chan formulated a strategy before starting the work. “I spend much more time now thinking about what I should do and how I should do it before deciding to pour time into something. Law school can challenge you to deal with big problems and limited resources. I’ve come to respond by taking a careful step back to plan before acting.
Peter Donohue of George Mason University

Peter Donohue of George Mason University

George Mason’s Peter Donohue translates the importance of strategy to what he calls “lawyer’s discretion”–a euphemism for looking at the bigger picture and using common sense. “Sometimes the best advice you can give your client is that your client does not have to sue simply because he can,” Donahue admits. “I have realized that lawyers can wield tremendous power to destroy or to heal the lives of those they represent, and those they will oppose… Recognizing that a balance and tension exists between those two concepts, and discussing it with one’s client, is, I believe, essential to being a good lawyer.”
For USC’s Cantero, law school became a place to find his voice and embrace his fears. “[As an undergraduate] at Stanford, I lived in constant fear. Fear of failing. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. While in law school, I learned that in order to allow growth, I needed to step into my fears. With every class that I raised my hand in, with every dumb question or answer I gave, with every embarrassing moment, I learned to step into my fears and obliterate them.”
When it comes to the 1Ls following in their footsteps next fall, the Class of 2016 offers some sage, hard-won advice. One: Don’t get stressed out and discouraged–everyone goes through it. “There is a steep learning curve.” UC-Berkeley’s Krsulich explains. “But the work gets easier with practice.” Even more important, keep yourself open to new experiences and opportunities. “I came into law school with a firm plan about what I wanted to do and ended up completely changing my course,” Minnesota’s Kraemer adds. “So my advice would be to approach all experiences with an open mind because you may find something that you never considered is what you want to do with your life.”
Congratulations, Class of 2016! And good luck on your bar exams!

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