Meet the 2020–2021 Davis Polk Leadership Fellows

The fellows are working to bring new participants and perspectives to the study and teaching of law.

The Columbia lion in front of cherry blossom flowers

Davis Polk Leadership Fellows learn to lead while putting their skills at the service of improvements to the legal profession. Each of this year’s fellows has created a project to further broaden the reach of legal education and legal services. At the same time, the fellows receive leadership training, a stipend, and individual coaching from leadership coaches and alumni mentors.

The fellowship, now in its third year, is part of Columbia Law School’s Davis Polk Leadership Initiative, made possible with support from Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. The co-chairs of the leadership initiative are Elizabeth F. Emens, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law; James S. Liebman, Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law; and Petal N. Modeste, associate dean for Professional Advancement, Graduate Degree Programs, and Executive Education.

The co-chairs, in a joint statement, praised this year’s cohort of fellows for “meeting these difficult times with enthusiasm, passion, creativity, and discipline. They are crafting new ways to lead in remote and challenging circumstances, which will make them better able to meet—and to help us all meet—the challenges of the future. And they have designed innovative projects and have exercised leadership in ways that have meaningfully enhanced the lives of the CLS community and beyond.”

Learn more about each of this year’s fellows and their projects below and on the program’s website.

Portraits of three women in one frame

Iris Carbonel ’22, Stephanie Nnadi ’22, Stacy Okoro ’22 (Co-fellows)

The goal: Connect Columbia Law School with the surrounding community, diversify the legal profession, and empower traditionally underrepresented students to become successful law school applicants and lawyers.

The inspiration: The three co-fellows are leaders in the First Generation Professionals student affinity group. They are modeling their program on those at other top law schools including Yale, but with a geographic focus on Harlem, uptown Manhattan, and the Bronx. “Our mission seeks to mend the relationship between Columbia and its surrounding communities,” the co-fellows say.

The project: The project aims to empower first-generation, low-income, justice-impacted, undocumented, and minority students in these communities to enter the legal profession. At the same time, the program seeks to shift the perspective of what a diverse law student might look like. This effort, called the Law School Pathways Program will include Saturday academies that provide counseling on the law school application process, resume and personal statement workshops, mentoring from attorneys and law students, and a free LSAT preparation course. This spring, the co-fellows organized a one-credit student reading group to build the curriculum and were the inaugural recipients of Columbia Law School’s Anti-Racism Grantmaking Program.

Blond woman in black jacket

Laura MacKay LL.M. ’21

The goal: Foster better communication in a polarized world.

The inspiration: Laura MacKay LL.M. ’21 hopes to go into public service in her native New Zealand and work to make government “responsive, proactive, highly functional, non-hierarchical, open to self-reflection, and deeply connected to the community it serves,” she says.

The project: MacKay’s project will create workshops to train law students how to speak to people with differing views, how to understand their perspective, and how to persuade them, in a respectful way. ”Being able to communicate with others who hold differing opinions is a critical part of being a leader, and for being part of social change,” MacKay says. “This is especially true in our currently polarized world, which is paralyzing our ability to confront major challenges.”

Man in white shirt

Obinna Maduka LL.M. ’21

The goal: Improve Columbia Law School students’ leadership skill set by broadening access to accomplished human rights and public interest lawyers.

The inspiration: As a lawyer in Nigeria, Obinna Maduka LL.M. ’21 founded a pro bono legal services effort for indigent prisoners across Nigeria. His Project Freedom Initiative provided litigation and alternative dispute resolution services to more than 40 inmates and secured the release of nearly 20 unlawfully incarcerated persons.

The project: Maduka plans to invite accomplished public interest attorneys to speak about their work so that students can learn invaluable leadership lessons by hearing about their experiences, challenges, and successes. While many students arrive at law school planning to pursue human rights and public interest careers, Maduka says, too many students “lose sight of this initial intent. More opportunities to see and hear from accomplished human rights and international law practitioners would help many law students remain true to their intention.”

Dark-haired woman in white turtleneck sweater

Sneha Pandya ’21

The goal: Create a pipeline for underrepresented students to enter careers in teaching law.

The inspiration: Drawing on her own experience of feeling isolated during the start of law school, Pandya suggested a community-building orientation program called Connecting Columbia, which Student Services implemented in 2019. “What I felt I experienced alone was a collective experience that could be collectively resolved, and the experience taught me that much of leadership is identifying strength in the challenges I’ve experienced and finding community with others to create change for the next generation of our peers.” She now serves as an orientation co-chair for the Student Senate, is a peer mentor, and continues to build Connecting Columbia. As an aspiring legal academic, Pandya wants to build a similar supportive program for underrepresented students who are interested in careers in law teaching. “There simply are too few academics of color, LGBTQ academics, and first-generation academics in law,” she says.

The project: Pandya aims to create a pipeline to academia by providing opportunities for students to workshop and present their work in front of peers and faculty. She plans to solicit working papers from faculty and students in order to demystify the process of moving an academic paper from draft to publication and support students who are conducting supervised writing and research so they can later use that work to enter the job market. As part of the effort, Pandya is working to build either a one-credit course or seminar in which students can build confidence in their oral and written skills and develop publishable material that they can use to pursue careers in the legal academy. “This would be an enriching experience for students interested in academia and a supportive space for underrepresented students,” Pandya says. “I see this project developing a long-term commitment for Columbia Law School to produce diverse academics in the legal community.”

Dark haired woman in black jacket

Jenny Park ’21

The goal: Make legal resources accessible to Asian American community members affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The inspiration: Last summer, Jenny Park ’21 served as a legal intern to the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (UN ITU) and as a COVID-19 Student Task Force Leader for the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY). These experiences helped her to realize how she could assist in COVID-19 relief efforts.

The project: Park’s goal is to create and make available legal resources for the Asian American community, including those affected by COVID-19. By recruiting law school students and practicing attorneys, she plans to develop a web series and publications for distribution nationally. The web series for Asian American communities, for example, might include “how to handle discrimination and racism, deportation issues, and even student training sessions about how law students can assist with the pandemic,” Park says. She aims to work with affinity groups such as Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and law associations including National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. This spring, Park coordinated a Remote Clinic Caravan with the AABNY that gave students the opportunity to support free legal consultations for clients with limited English proficiency. Through the caravan, students updated and translated AABANY’s COVID-19 webpages.

Bearded man in bright blue shirt

Alec Schwartz ’22

The goal: Bridge the civil–military divide by giving law students the chance to work with at-risk veterans through pro bono and experiential work.

The inspiration: After serving nearly a decade as a flight commander in the U.S. Air Force, including tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Alec Schwartz ’22 returned to civilian life as a law student—and realized the law and the military are worlds apart. “The members of these two professional groups are vastly different in personal backgrounds, education, and interests. Despite these differences, they each share a strong disposition toward service,” he says. Both groups want “to serve in a meaningful capacity,“ but seldom interact.

The project: Schwartz aims to bring Columbia Law’s diverse student body into regular contact with veteran clients through pro bono and experiential work opportunities in partnership with the New York Legal Assistance Group Unit for Veterans’ Rights. Bringing law students and veterans together, he believes, will bridge the civil–military divide by humanizing military members to law students likely to assume leadership roles. As part of his efforts, Schwartz recently hosted an online talk for law students with veteran, burn survivor, author, and Dancing With The Stars winner J.R. Martinez.

2020–2021 Innovation Grant Recipients

The Davis Polk Leadership Initiative also awards Innovation Grants to students to support community-oriented projects. This year’s recipients include: 

  • Alexis Banks ’22: filming a documentary on racism in the Columbia Law community.
  • Marcus Liang ’21: increasing first-generation Asian Americans’ access to state and federal COVID-19 resources by creating resource pamphlets in easy-to-understand Chinese.
  • Paul Riley ’22: educating Columbia Law students on how to run for office.
  • Paula Zampietro ’22: creating the Coalition for Diversity, a group of student organization leaders.