Jennifer James Soto: Associate, Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, Charlotte, N.C.
Unlike some of her law school classmates, Jennifer James Soto did not have a decisive moment when she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her law degree. In fact, she's still not 100 percent certain, although that hasn't stopped her from having the beginnings of a successful career.
Her curricular choices at Columbia reflect a split between a corporate practice and human rights advocacy. "Welcome to my life!" she says, when this divergence is called to her attention.
Ms. James Soto took a year off from college to serve in City Year, an "urban Peace Corps" based in Boston. After graduating from Harvard-Radcliffe Colleges, she worked for the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes in South Africa.
Although she has been a corporate associate for three firms and in-house counsel to a technology company, her real passion is pro bono work.
"I thought I was going to save the world, and I still will," she says, with a laugh.
Nonetheless, the anticipation of law school loans and a general interest in developing her skills as a private practitioner led her to take such courses as Advanced Corporate Law, Mergers and Acquisitions, Corporate Taxation, and Accounting and Financial Statement Analysis.
One of her favorite courses was Music Industry Contracts with the late Professor Kellis Parker. "He made us draft and negotiate contracts, unlike many classes that are purely or mostly theoretical," she says. "We would go to different jazz clubs and meet artists. It was very helpful preparation for interacting with future clients." She also took Prof. Parker's seminar called Jazz Roots: Slavery and the Laws Slaves Made.
"Some of the courses I enjoyed most - such as Children and the Law and Civil Rights Law - I think I'll use later in my career in my pro bono practice," says Ms. James Soto.
After law school, she moved to Palo Alto, Calif., and worked for two different law firms on license agreements and technology transactions. She also worked for a Los Angeles-based technology company called Encryp Tix, Inc. after she moved with her husband to Charlotte, N.C.
"I was literally an in-house, in-house counsel, since I was working out of my home and going to L.A. once a month. It was great," she says, "until the technology bubble burst."
After a few months deciding what was next, she decided to go back into practice to get broader experience. She joined Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, where she has been for the past year and a half. Here Ms. James Soto has found a good fit for her divergent interests.
"We have no minimum billable hours requirement," she explains. "Because of that, people work and play well together. Assignments go to the person best qualified and least expensive. That fosters an environment that is a lot less stressful."
She also has had plenty of opportunity for pro bono work. She represented the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development on licensing matters. And through the Jacobs Ladder Job Center, she has helped the unemployed and underemployed find living-wage jobs.
In fact, as the Report went to press, Ms. James Soto had plans to leave her firm to create and develop her own organization to help the homeless.
David Warren Blass: Associate, Davis Polk & Wardwell, New York
Long before he arrived at Columbia Law School, David Blass knew he wanted to practice at a large, prestigious New York firm. "Coming from a small Southern town [Satsuma, Ala.], I always dreamed of working in New York and I thought my best chance to be able to do that was to attend the preeminent New York law school," he says. "It took a great deal of adjustment and hard work, but I am thankful that I was able to realize my dream."
He was less certain what his specialty would be, although spending his junior year abroad in Germany while an undergraduate at the University of Alabama fostered an interest in international practice. During law school, a summer associate position - half of which was spent in Frankfurt, Germany - solidified a concentration in corporate international work.
Mr. Blass has been an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell since 1998. After joining the firm, he briefly worked out of its Frankfurt office, then spent three years in the London office before returning to New York in the fall of 2002.
While in Europe, his practice focused mainly on securities. For example, Mr. Blass worked on the $2.5 billion rights offering by Zurich Financial Services - one of the world's largest insurance groups - and the 1.3 billion Euro initial public offering and privatization of Telekom Austria - the first Austrian company to list on the New York Stock Exchange. "Especially during the boom times, I worked on the initial public offerings of many European clients," says Mr. Blass, who more recently has focused on credit work, including bankruptcies and restructurings.
While in law school, Mr. Blass developed a three-category strategy for his curriculum. He emphasized career-specific courses, such as Mergers and Acquisitions, Securities and Accounting, and Financial Statement Analysis - the latter of which proved especially valuable early in his practice. "It helped me communicate with accountants and bankers more easily than some of my colleagues who had not taken such a course," he says. Next, he took general, but useful courses, such as Corporate Taxation, Negotiation, International Trade Contracts, and Corporate Finance.
Mr. Blass also took what he calls "fun classes that are completely unrelated to my own practice." Top on that list was Criminal Investigations, which focused on Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues.
Mr. Blass also honed his knowledge of international law by serving as executive editor of the Journal of Transnational Law. Of his curricular regrets, Mr. Blass says he wishes he had taken the Tax Exempt Corporations Workshop. "Columbia has many excellent workshops that provide an opportunity to see how things really happen in the real world," he adds. "The Tax Exempt Workshop, in particular, which deals with issues that face not-for-profit companies, would have well suited my pro bono practice."
Mr. Blass also recommends taking a course or two outside of the Law School. "I found it refreshing to interact on occasion with people who are pursuing non-legal careers," he says. His transcript includes German - important in his dealings with various European clients - and Italian, which he took just for fun. Mr. Blass reports that the Italian proved most useful when he and Dalia Nabil Osman '99 were married in May 2002 in Tuscany.