Setting the Bar

Vast Horizons

Petal Modeste

Dean of Career Services Petal Modeste and her team are responding with vigor to a highly competitive job market

By Carl Schreck

Spring 2012

Petal Modeste’s appointment as the Law School’s dean of Career Services nearly three years ago coincided with an inauspicious moment in the recent history of legal recruitment. The unraveling of the global economy had forced firms to rein in hiring, leaving promising young attorneys nationwide to face uncertain job prospects.

The timing of Modeste’s arrival, however, also offered the Trinidad and Tobago native the opportunity to help refocus Columbia Law School students as they enter a profession that has undergone an unprecedented transformation. It is a mission she has seized with unconcealed passion, spearheading an array of new initiatives aimed at preparing graduates for their future careers.

“The financial crisis has changed the world of legal hiring,” says Modeste, a former senior director of legal recruiting at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and finance associate at Shearman & Sterling, both in New York City. Since Modeste’s arrival in August 2009, the Office of Career Services and Professional Development has embarked on a multipronged strategy to provide career assistance to students and alumni.

One aspect of this strategy has been an intensification of individual counseling efforts, says Stephen L. Buchman ’62, assistant director of career advising. Under Modeste’s leadership, the office has required students to enroll in basic career counseling in order to utilize resources such as the Early Interview Program.

“We look at their story, background, credentials, needs, and strengths in a much more individual way, because we know firms are going to be doing that,” says Buchman, who has worked at Career Services since 1994.

In addition to more customized counseling and events like career symposia and panel discussions, Career Services has also created new initiatives such as Regional Networking Night, which offers representatives of firms from smaller markets in the Midwest, South, and Mid-Atlantic the chance to meet with first-year students.

“These firms are small in terms of number of employees, but they do sophisticated work for eminent clients, and this is attractive to Columbia Law School students interested in the private sector,” says Modeste.

Career Services organizes 30 to 40 events and programs every year, and a mainstay continues to be the Private Sector Career Symposium. The most recent iteration, held this past March, featured 50 senior practitioners who spoke about their experience in a broad range of fields, including arbitration and litigation, intellectual property, tax law, and corporate transactional work. Modeste’s team has also launched a number of successful initiatives, including a program for Law School graduates to work with general counsels in a variety of corporate sectors and a series of programs to introduce students to legal careers in investment banks, consulting, and accounting.

An overarching objective of all these initiatives, Modeste says, is to help students determine a professional path that will lead to a rewarding career. A panel discussion organized by her office this spring was emblematic of this approach. The event featured recent graduates who described to a roomful of students how persistence and the pursuit of one’s passion can lead to professional success.

One speaker, Jason Allegrante ’10, said he sensed that at the time of student interviews, in the midst of the financial crisis, Big Law was not the right place for him to start. He worked closely with Modeste’s office before eventually securing an interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. As part of his application, Allegrante submitted a 50-page paper he wrote on the financial crisis. He was hired almost immediately.

“It turned out that’s what I was passionate about,” Allegrante, now a senior analyst at the New York Fed, said of the subject matter of his paper. “I found what I really wanted to do.”