Meet The Class of 2008

These student profiles and other graduation stories appeared in the Columbia Law School "Graduation 2008" newsletter, available for download here.

“Now I can confidently say I’m a human rights lawyer.”
Otto Saki, LL.M., Age 27, Harare, Zimbabwe
Otto Saki had to leave his home in Africa last year. “I had no intention of leaving the country but I’d become so targeted because of my work, and I had to look for an opportunity to take a breather,” said Otto, a lawyer with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Columbia Law School and Professor Peter Rosenblum provided one. “If I’d not been able to get a scholarship I couldn’t have come, could not have afforded the plane trip, even,” Otto said.

This past March, Zimbabwe held highly contested elections. Otto has represented Morgan Tsvangirai, the likely winner of the presidency if the Mugabe government releases the vote results. Otto said that after the election he hopes those who drove him to seek safety at Columbia Law School will have less interest in him. When he goes back after graduating, he is prepared for his work in ways he wasn’t before, because law schools there did not have classes in human rights, nor any notion of pro bono work, public interest law or litigating human rights issues, he said.

Otto and his wife have weathered their first winter and are both looking forward to their return home to his work at the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. “I am glad I came,” Otto said. “I feel that now I am a very different lawyer and very different activist.”

“In litigation you learn to understand what points other people will absorb; it’s often not what you expect.”
Caroline Koo, J.D., Age 26, Sydney, Australia
Caroline Koo always loved “the logic and language of law” and knew early on that she wanted to be a lawyer. Caroline, who was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Sydney, Australia, and earned a bachelor’s degree in government at Harvard. She chose Columbia for its renowned international law programs. While here, she discovered she wanted to be a litigator.

Caroline remembers her first oral argument for foundation moot court as a 1L. “It scared me to bits. I was shaking behind the podium and couldn’t speak for about 30 seconds,” she said.

She made it though arguments and found the experience so rewarding that she stayed involved after her first-year requirement. During her second year she was a moot court editor, designing an appellate advocacy problem for 1Ls and supervising them as they researched and wrote their briefs. This past year, she served as the director of the first-year program and as teaching assistant for Professor Philip Genty’s Workshop in Briefcraft, where she helped guide the 2L moot court editors.

Caroline enjoyed Columbia’s international law offerings, serving on the Journal of Transnational Law as a staffer her 2L year and head notes editor her 3L year. But her path moved toward litigation, and moot court was a primary focus.

“It’s a great chance for 1Ls to learn the practical skills of litigation — reading, research, brief writing, argument — that are very different than what you get from lectures and seminars,” Caroline said.

Especially valuable is the participation of alumni judges, who give students the realistic experience of getting peppered with questions during their oral arguments and then provide valuable feedback afterward, she said. Caroline, who will be a litigation associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, has promised to return to Columbia Law School as an alumni judge herself.

 “There’s more than just the law. We’re also here to remember our role in our community.”
Ashley Scott, J.D., Age 25, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Ashley Scott wanted to go to law school in a major city, and was thrilled to find Columbia’s tree-graced campus in the middle of New York. She attended several Black Law Students Association (BLSA) events while visiting and they sealed her decision to attend.

“Immediately I knew this was something I wanted to be part of,” Ashley said. It was important that the law school she picked have a strong minority presence, she said. For her undergraduate degree, she had attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black college in Tallahassee.

Ashley joined BLSA as a 1L and chaired the organization her second year. The annual Paul Robeson Conference is the culminating academic event for BLSA, and during Ashley’s year as chairperson, the conference focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit her home state three weeks into her time at Columbia.

“The Robeson Conference helps remind us of our role as lawyers,” Ashley said. “I have this voice, and I’m using it to gather other voices.”
Courses that made a significant impression on Ashley were the Mediation Clinic and the Negotiations Workshop, which explore alternatives to litigation. The techniques she learned, such as uninterrupted listening and asking open-ended questions, “have really changed the way I communicate,” Ashley said. “I’m also much more aware of how people are communicating with me.”

Ashley will join Sullivan & Cromwell as a litigation associate. She notes the firm’s strength in arbitration and mediation, and hopes to employ those same skills that she honed at Columbia Law School.

“I think you can have a positive impact on society through the private sector.”
Carlos Barnard Villalba, LL.M., Age 30, Guadalajara, Mexico
Carlos Barnard Villalba came to Columbia Law School to make a transition to corporate law. He had worked at a law firm and clerked for three years for Associate Justice Sergio Salvador Aguirre Anguiano in the Supreme Court of Mexico. While he found both experiences rewarding, he realized that, as he put it, he “prefers to be part of the deal than to be the referee.”

Carlos sees the corporate sector as a valuable contributor to a more productive society, the broader goal that first drove him to the law. “If the right conditions are met in business transactions, companies will be better off and provide better services, which keeps and creates jobs, and has real benefits for society,” he said.

New York City and Columbia are “the best place to get knowledge from teachers in the field, who are working on a day-to-day basis on the business issues they’re teaching,” he said.

While at the Law School he served on the board of the Columbia Latin American Business Law Association and invited Justice Aguirre to talk to the group. He also brought a bit of Columbia Law School to Mexico when he hosted fellow LL.M. students from Japan in his hometown of Guadalajara over winter break.

Carlos said personal growth was just as important an experience in the LL.M. program as academic and professional growth.
“You have to adapt to a new environment,” he said. “Many cultures are sharing the same experiences here. You’re all riding the same wave.” After graduation, Carlos plans to work in business law in the U.S. before returning to Guadalajara.

“It has been the most amazing experience, getting to know people from all over the world, with diverse backgrounds, bringing other perspectives.”
Hanny Ben Israel, LL.M., Age 28, Tel Aviv, Israel
After two years as a human rights lawyer in Israel advocatingfor migrant workers, Hanny Ben Israel wanted to pause and reflect on her work.

“Sometimes as a practitioner, you can miss the broader issues,” she said.

The Human Rights Fellowship at Columbia Law School was “a wonderful opportunity” to take that pause, she said.

Kav LaOved (“Worker’s Hotline”), the NGO where Hanny works in Israel, provides legal services to migrant workers, Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories and low-paid Israelis. At Columbia, she researched guest worker programs with Professor Mark Barenberg, comparing the Israeli and American approaches, lessons she will bring back to Kav LaOved. She also interned with the Legal Aid Society where she assisted in the representation of immigrants facing deportation.

She observed striking parallels between the stories of her clients in New York and those at home in Israel. Whether Nepalese “guest workers” in Israel or Cubans who came to the United States on the Mariel Boatlift, “The narrative of immigration, this desire to strike better luck somewhere else, has a universal quality,” Hanny said.

While Hanny loves New York City, the year away gave her greater perspective into life as an outsider.

“It was interesting to think about immigration law while being something of an immigrant myself,” she said. “I am heartbroken about leaving New York. It’s been a most extraordinary and rewarding year.”

“Being able to take a class with one of the attorneys from Brown v. Board — that alone justified my decision to come to Columbia.”
Uzoma Nkwonta, J.D., Age 24, Winnipeg, Canada
During his first year of law school at George Mason University, Uzoma Nkwonta grew more interested in civil rights and wanted to be at a school with depth in that area.

“These were issues I had not fully been exposed tobefore,” says Uzoma, who was born in Nigeria, immigrated to Winnipeg, Canada, when he was seven, and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Manitoba.

Uzoma cites Columbia’s “phenomenal faculty” and the international law and human rights programs as key reasons he chose to transfer here. He took advantage of classes such as Law & the Political Process with Visiting Professor Lani Guinier, Integration in American Jurisprudence with Professor Olati Johnson and Civil Rights with Professor Jack Greenberg.

“Nowhere else could I have done this,” Uzoma said.

Uzoma also got involved with the Black Law Students Association and the African Law Student Association. Through the spring break caravans, he organized a group of 16 students who went this year to New Orleans to do pro bono legal work.

After graduation, Uzoma moves to Chicago to clerk for Judge Ann Claire Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He will use his clerkship year to determine his next career step, which may be working for a firm or working for a civil rights organization.

“Columbia does an extraordinary job catering to a diverse student body. They really make an effort to make people feel welcome.”
Jeff Tate, J.D., Age 27, Salt Lake City, Utah
Jeff Tate came to Columbia Law School to study tax law with two degrees in accounting already in hand.

“Many people think tax is just filling out your 1040 on April 14,” Jeff said.

“But with a little bit of knowledge, you can come up with creative solutions to save your client money.”

Because tax law is constantly changing, and because new transaction structures continue to evolve, Jeff said there is often no clear guidance on a specific issue. Tax lawyers must creatively analyze and give opinions on novel issues of law, and also often work to convince the IRS and the courts that their tax treatment of a given transaction is correct.

As an undergraduate, Jeff thought he might become an auditor, but soon realized that a career in tax better suited him: “The tax savings often more than pay for your fee, so your client is going to be happy. You get to be the good guy.”

Jeff’s interest in pursuing more complex tax problems ultimately drew him to law school. To attend Columbia, he moved his wife and their two-year-old son from Salt Lake City, Utah, where Jeff grew up and studied at Brigham Young University. “We really enjoy New York City’s urban environment,” he said.

He and his wife have since welcomed two more sons into their home in Morningside Heights, and have enjoyed bringing their children to local parks, Columbia family fairs, and Law School trick-or-treating at Halloween. “The community that we’ve experienced here has been remarkable,” Jeff said.

The Tates will move this summer to Washington, D.C., where Jeff will be a tax associate at Shearman & Sterling. Tax law, he said, offers “a lot of interesting and challenging work for a young associate.”

“The human manipulation of natural resources and the scientific challenges it raises are fascinating. It’s a multi-dimensional question and something I’ll be interested in for the rest of my life.”
Sarah Hollinshead, J.D., Age 31, Rehoboth, Massachusetts
As a child, Sarah Hollinshead routinely pulled on rubber boots and headed into her stream to examine its ecosystem of bugs, plants and animals. “Water is fascinating,” she said of the element that came to define her academically and professionally.

Since the middle of her undergraduate years studying political science and the environment at Yale, Sarah wanted to get a master’s degree in civil engineering and a J.D. with water as her muse. “I enjoy the legal intersection of science, politics and policy,” she said.

At Columbia, she was active in the Environmental Law Clinic, where she found the amount of responsibility put into the hands of students to be exceptional. She spent her 1L summer at the Environmental Defense Fund and her 2L summer at the Attorney General’s Office in California. She was the Editor in Chief of the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law. “Water Is Not Liquid,” her note that examines securitizingwater in California, will publish in June.

After graduation she will work at the National Resources Defense Council before clerking for Judge Sidney H. Stein of the U.S. Southern District of NewYork. She hopes to lay the groundwork for a career in public interest litigation. This summer, Sarah will also get married on the banks of her childhood stream.

She said her ideal future is in an attorney general’s office or working for an advocacy organization. “I’m pretty purely public interest,” she said.

“Columbia was the obvious choice for me. It’s the best for intellectual property law and provides excellent opportunities to do social justice work. Plus, New York is the greatest city in the world!”
Gabriel Martinez, J.D., Age 25, New York, New York
Gabe’s story is one of ends and beginnings joined. He was born in Morningside Heights, and though his family left the neighborhood for a farm in Maryland, after 18 years he returned as a Columbia College anthropology major. He worked for a year as a fundraiser (and the only male employee) of The New York Women’s Foundation, and then returned yet again to Columbia for law school.

At Columbia, he sought to gain professional skills and serve the causes he champions. Gabe still volunteers at the Women’s Foundation. He spent his 1L summer at the ACLU, and he was President of the Latino Law Student Association. He and his teammate Lisa Sandoval won best brief in the National Native American Law Students Moot Court competition, and their brief was published this year in The American Indian Law Review. And all along, he has continued painting in his favorite medium: oil on canvas.

Through the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts clinic, Gabe realized the kind of law he wanted to pursue.

“Each week we were exposed to a new facet of entertainment law by some of the top practitioners in the field,” he said. He became interested in advertising and emerging entertainment issues like viral marketing and branded entertainment. “I love the creative and psychological elements of advertising and entertainment law, its cutting-edge legal work, and I hope to help shape the policies that develop.”

He leaves Columbia for the Entertainment Department at Loeb & Loeb, coincidentally located in the same Park Avenue building where his grandfather worked as a janitor after emigrating from Puerto Rico some 60 years ago.

“Columbia opened me up to the possibility of doing human rights work at home. There’s a lot to do.”
Tanaz Moghadam, J.D., Age 25, Rye, New York
For Tanaz Moghadam, law school was a longtime calling and a natural fit. “I’ve always loved to be engaged in arguments and to be able to communicate better,” she said.

Her interest in human rights developed during her first year at college when she read Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda by journalist Scott Peterson. “I wanted to see this firsthand and I wanted to know what happened,” Tanaz said of her reaction to the book.

Tanaz followed through on her concern as an undergraduate. She conducted field work in Tanzania, Morocco and Rwanda, then worked at the International Center for Transitional Justice for a year after college as she applied to law schools.

“I picked Columbia because of the amount of support you get right away from the Center for Public Interest Law,” she said.
Tanaz spent her 1L summer in the Ivory Coast where she worked in an emergency obstetrics program through Columbia’s Human Rights Internship Program fellowship. She said that since coming to the Law School, she has become increasingly interested in the civil liberties side of public interest work. An externship at the ACLU sparked her interest in challenging executive overreach, what she sees as a domestic effect of the war on terror.

She will clerk for Judge Jan E. Dubois of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and she plans to go into public interest work afterwards.

“I have this passion for transitional justice and seeing communities emerge from violent conflict,” she said.

“Morningside Heights is one of the great benefits of Columbia. It’s an academic community that feels like its own city within New York City.”
John Bennett, J.D., Age 28, Duxbury, Massachusetts
John Bennett had not always planned to become a lawyer. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history at Tufts University, he worked at the Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund in Boston, Massachusetts. He began in grant-making and then moved into compliance, where he grew fascinated by the legal aspects of the non-profit sector, and decided to go to law school.

The Massachusetts native wanted to study in New York City, and a Columbia Law alum who worked as outside counsel for the Fidelity Gift Fund gave positive reviews.

John said Columbia has more than met his expectations. “I was amazed by the vibrancy of public interest on campus,” John said.
During his three years at Columbia, John participated extensively in the public interest community. He coordinated the annual fundraiser Deans’ Cup game against NYU, which raised over $140,000 this year, and served on the boards of the Public Interest Law Foundation and the ACLU.

Several of John’s favorite classes included a seminar on Non-Profit Corporations with Professors Harvey Goldschmid and Peter Swords, the Non-Profit Organizations Clinic with Professor Barbara Schatz and tax courses with Professor Alex Raskolnikov.

John will stay in New York to work in the taxexempt organizations group at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, which counsels some of the most sophisticated private foundations and public charities in the world.

“There can be a balance between economic development and environmental sustainability. Part of understanding how to achieve that equilibrium is to see what fuels economic development — sometimes the private sector, sometimes the government — and how it works.”
Won Park, J.D., Age 28, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey
During Fulbright Scholarship seminars in Korea with academics, politicians and artists in 2002–03, New Jersey native Won Park decided to get involved in current policy issues, but felt that with a liberal arts degree alone she “would be seen internationally as an ivory tower.”

Won, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Harvard, interned at the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul and then went to China to learn Mandarin. There she worked at the American Bar Association’s Asia Law Initiative on rule of law programs. She also shadowed a United Nations Development Programme project focused on reducing poverty and human trafficking in the Chinese ethnic minority population.

Won chose Columbia Law School for its strength in human rights and the international diversity of the J.D. and LL.M. programs. The Human Rights Internship Program sponsored her 1L summer in Beijing, where she worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council on public participation in environmental policy-making. “That summer really pushed me toward environmental law,” Won said.

She participated in the Environmental Law Clinic her second and third years at Columbia. Two days after running the New York City Marathon in November 2007, she went with the clinic on a fact-finding mission to São Tomé, where she and others investigated deforestation issues and met with government officials, NGO directors and timber company executives.

At law school Won also served as the fundraising chair of the Columbia Law Women’s Association and co-president of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association.

Won will join Dewey & LeBoeuf as an associate in project finance, focusing on energy issues and gaining skills that will serve her long-term goal of working in eco-sustainable development and environmental policy.

“I thought I would go home to practice in the Midwest after graduation. But three years of getting to know the city and experiencing the pace and challenge of legal practice here changed my mind.”
Kristin Yemm, J.D., Age 25, St. Louis, Missouri
Kristin Yemm, a lifelong Midwesterner, came to New York City by way of London. The native of St. Louis, Missouri, attended the University of Notre Dame and thought she might like to live in an international city after a semester abroad in England’s capital.

The next year, as she applied to law schools, Columbia’s strength in corporate law drew Kristin, who majored in accounting at Notre Dame.

“I’ve always been interested in how companies do business,” she said. “Accounting is really the language of business, and that background has been valuable.”

While at the Law School Kristin served as a teaching assistant for Professors Susan Sturm and John Witt in their respective courses in Civil Procedure (Law School) and American Legal History (Columbia College). She had taken first-year classes with both Sturm and Witt, and she said they set high standards.

“I couldn’t have imagined a better introduction to Columbia,” Kristin said. “Professor Sturm knows she’s teaching a really difficult subject and cares so much about her students,” Kristin added. “She also really cares about how the rules of civil procedure impact people and justice; you’re not just memorizing the rule.”

Kristin also enjoyed the seminar in deals litigation, co-taught by two lecturers-in-law at Columbia who are partners at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, where Kristin spent her 2L summer, and where she will work after graduation.

“Every walk of life converges in New York.”
Aaron Spiwak, J.D., Age 25, Los Angeles, California
Aaron Spiwak was on a finance track at Washington University in St. Louis but realized after a banking internship that he was more interested in law. A summer at the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers affirmed his view.

The variety of people at Columbia, the alma mater of an O’Melveny lawyer Aaron worked with, appealed to him, as did its urban campus. While at Columbia he participated in Law Revue, the student senate and the Journal of Law and Social Problems.

Aaron’s 1L summer at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District in Brooklyn strengthened his desire to become a prosecutor. Working in the violent crimes and terrorism division, he participated in the prosecution of a multiple homicide case, drafted a response to a habeas corpus petition, and assisted an armed robbery trial from start to finish. “I really liked the inter-federal agency aspect and having autonomy within a larger hierarchy,” Aaron said.

After graduation, Aaron will return to his hometown of Los Angeles and O’Melveny & Myers to focus on litigation. He looks forward to working at a law firm with a number of former prosecutors and developing skills that will help him on that career path.