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Ms. JD Pre-Law: Interview with Elina Tetelbaum, Corporate Associate at Wachtell Lipton

Our interview today is with Elina Tetelbaum, a Corporate Associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Elina graduated from Harvard University, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and Yale Law School, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Yale Journal on Regulation and editor of the Yale Law Journal, and was a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans. After law school, Elina clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Hello Lina! Thanks so much for joining us on the Ms. JD Pre-Law blog! I've heard you speak about your experience as a corporate lawyer at Wachtell Lipton on two panels for pre-law students so far, and both times I've been blown away by your energy and enthusiasm for your work. Was this something you wanted to do growing up? At what point did you become interested in corporate practice? 

Elina:  I was not interested in a transaction practice until very late in the game—I had already accepted an offer to join my firm’s litigation department!  In law school, it’s very hard to get a sense of what being a transaction lawyer looks like: We read judicial decisions, argue moot cases, obsess over legal citations and never get to see a whole other way that law can be practiced. After my clerkship, I did some soul searching and asked myself questions like: Do I want to limit myself solely to the adversarial process at the start of my career, where there are winners and losers? Do I like having to constrain what I can argue to language that has been handed down by courts?  I think a transactional practice allows you to participate in win-win situations, where both sides want to be involved in the deal and are trying to accomplish something.  You still have to use fundamental lawyering skills—negotiating, persuading, writing—but you tend to do it for people who are trying to work collaboratively to accomplish a business goal. And I get to work with people who are masters of their craft—the lawyers at Wachtell Lipton can find creative solutions to some of the most complicated and unprecedented issues in corporate law. I’ve sometimes found myself listening to my colleagues think through an issue and have just been awed by their sophistication, brilliance, and, most importantly, pragmatism. Wachtell has also given me the opportunity to sit at the type of tables where few women have been able to sit at in the past, and that is something that really motivates me. I think it is important for women to sit at the tables where deals happen and the flow of commerce is determined, and to be thoughtful, contributing members to those discussions.

Your resume is absolutely flawless: Harvard, Yale Law, five publications, Ninth Circuit clerkship, Wachtell… Have you ever struggled with or failed at anything? 

Elina:  I’ve been very lucky in life—I was born in Russia and had about as wonderful a life as my parents could have ever wished for me as an immigrant to America. But, of course, I’ve had my fair share of disappointments and struggles. Many of my proudest accomplishments are things that I was rejected from in the first instance, but I continued to reapply and often it worked out. As I have gotten older, I spend less time measuring myself against various goal posts—I instead focus on making sure that I do right by my family, friends, colleagues, and strangers I meet along the way.  When you have a stressful job with a lot of time pressure and responsibility, it is all too easy to become short with people and not show up for people who matter to you. My biggest struggle in my professional life is to still show up and be a valuable source of support to the people in my life—even when there is constantly a tremendous amount of work responsibilities to tackle. I am proud of every day that I can accomplish that. 

You've been a wonderful mentor and role model to the pre-law students at Columbia University. Did you have significant mentors as an undergraduate? What advice would you give our pre-law readers about seeking out mentors? 

Elina:  Many people have influenced me professionally and academically, certainly too many to list. In particular, I am grateful to my thesis advisor who worked with me for almost a year on an economics paper, definitely the biggest academic project of my life. Certain former bosses have turned into close friends, who have been invested in my career and gave me sage advice. And, of course, there are a few law professors and law firm partners who stand out in terms of the influence they have made on my thinking and approach to legal questions. 

The best mentors in my life understand me as a full person—not just as an employee, a student or a colleague. They are invested in my all-around-well-being and it helps them give me advice in the context of my broader objectives in life. Even finding a mentor just a few years older than you can be incredibly valuable. People often joke that much of life is the blind leading the blind.  Find someone who has seen just a little farther over the horizon, to give you a sense of what to expect and also to prevent you from blowing anything out of proportion. We sometimes don’t fully appreciate how similar our concerns and struggles are to those who came before us and those who will come after.  There is little new under the sun, so find someone you trust and relate to, who will be frank about what really matters and what is wasted energy.  A sense of perspective is incredibly valuable in life and in the law, and having a person offer you that is at the heart of what mentorship is about.

You went “straight through” to law school. Separately, I've also heard you advise students to not become corporate paralegals before law school, if they can help it. What are your thoughts about working before going law school? 

Elina:  In the business world there is a lot of cache to having worked before going to business school. After all, so much of business school is networking, making connections, building on past projects and experiences. And you don’t need an MBA to be in business. But law is not like that—the sooner you get licensed as an attorney the more vibrant your legal career can actually be. The more time you are in the trenches reading, writing, analyzing, negotiating, the stronger a lawyer you become.  Of course, it’s wonderful to work in other careers to confirm that being a lawyer is something you really want. But if it is, I do not believe you will necessarily be a stronger law student for having had a few jobs before law school. My worry for anyone interested in law that becomes a paralegal is that it’s a primarily administrative role—you see legal issues, you watch law being practiced, but you rarely get asked to do the **stuff** that law is made of—analyze, interpret, draft. And so many paralegals who may have loved being a lawyer decide it’s not for them because they don’t want to spend their whole lives putting together binders, which is understandable. At the end of the day, there is no wrong time to become a lawyer—many people discover law later in their careers and many people want to become lawyers from their first episode of Law & Order. 

“What did you want to be when you grow up?”

Elina: In a dream world, I would have my own syndicourt television show, just like my role model, Judge Judy. It could be called Lina Law or Legal Lina or simply, Judge Lina. What people don’t realize is that Judge Judy just negotiates settlements between parties—those are just contracts, which is what I do for a living now. If anyone is reading this and has ties to television, I am ready to be discovered. smile

Thanks again for your time!

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