Five NYU Law alumni who reinvented their careers by taking unexpected paths
An NYU Law degree doesn’t prepare graduates for just one kind of career. Law School alumni pursue a diverse range of paths in a multitude of fields, often reinventing themselves and their careers along the way. We wanted to know more about those journeys. The five people profiled here—Tiffani Brown ’08, Julian Ha ’95, Emily Reisbaum ’96, Amélie Baudot ’08, and Craig Balsam ’86—are emblematic of many more NYU Law graduates who have taken risks, explored their passions, sought out new opportunities, and shown both grit and creativity in remaking their professional lives. In 2020, in a time of unusual uncertainty and change, their stories are more relevant than ever.
Tiffani Brown ’08: Being Nimble
When the 2008 financial crisis rocked the economy, Tiffani Brown ’08 had just started as a first-year corporate associate at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “People who had spent 20-plus years in law were telling me that they had never experienced anything like this before,” Brown recalls. She was not among the lawyers who lost their jobs in the downturn, but the experience reinforced what she had observed as an intern at an investment bank during the earlier dot-com crash: the economy is fickle.
“It became a validation that again…led to me realizing that I needed to be nimble,” she says.
Today Brown is chief of staff and global head of strategic initiatives at media agency giant Wavemaker. Her career path, which has included several years in the nonprofit sector, has required flexibility and a willingness to take risks—along with careful planning.
Before law school, Brown earned a master’s degree in international relations at Yale University and worked as a research assistant at the US Department of State in Lisbon. She decided to attend NYU Law after realizing that a JD could be useful in a diplomatic career. At the Law School, however, she gravitated toward corporate law, after taking Corporations with the late Professor John Slain ’55. “I learned good questions make good lawyers,” she says. “I think that really came from Professor Slain.”
But corporate dealmaking slowed in the Great Recession. As an associate with less work than anticipated, Brown pared down her expenses to pay off her loans. “I made a conscious decision not to get the dream apartment,” she recalls. Within four years, she says, she had eliminated her student debt.
Around that time, Brown’s grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had been a role model for Brown, the first in her extended family to attend law school. From him, she says, she’d absorbed the lesson that her own success could lift up others. “His career [as a serial entrepreneur] changed the trajectory of his entire family,” she says. But in a conversation before he died, she recalls, he emphasized that he’d worked hard in order to provide richer lives for his children and grandchildren. “‘I was successful really so I could provide experiences for you guys…. It never was about the money,’” he told her.
In a time of grief, Brown says she also felt liberated: “It just gave me permission to really let go and to leave a career that was incredibly lucrative to do something that I was passionate about.”
Brown had enjoyed doing pro bono work for nonprofits. She began researching the nonprofit sector, and noticed that many people working for nonprofits had previous experience in their organization’s field. Following her interest in food security and wellness, she attended culinary school while still working at Manatt. “It isn’t enough for you to just express an interest,” she says. “I think you really need to make a personal investment that people see.”
Brown landed a job as interim deputy general counsel at the Open Society Foundations after her former NYU Law professor Jill Manny introduced her to a board member. She then became counsel and director of operations at A Place at the Table, a social activist campaign focused on food security. Her Manatt experience translated well, she says: “I’d learned how to be a very good advisor from working at the law firm.”
Three years into that job, A Place at the Table board member Tim Castree became chief executive officer of Wavemaker, and asked Brown to be his chief of staff. “For a corporate lawyer, it is a dream,” says Brown of her current job. “For me, it is just a front-row opportunity to really see how CEOs think.”
The biggest lesson she has taken away from that front-row seat, she says, is the importance of resilience. She has met a range of business leaders who have had past setbacks: lost jobs, bankrupt companies. But they learned, adapted, and moved on. “You hear their stories and recognize it’s the same story of resilience,” she says. “There’s just so many factors that happen, and you have to keep moving.” —Emily Barker
Julian Ha ’95: Putting Talent to Work
Julian Ha ’95 has an eye for talent, placing senior-level executives such as CEOs, heads of public policy, general counsel, and board members in public and private businesses as a partner of the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.
Ha’s career experiences in law, venture capital, and executive recruitment reflect a nonlinear but meaningful trajectory in which each position has complemented the next.
“When I thought about what I enjoyed or what I thought I was good at in previous careers, I realized that talent was really important; it can make or break a company,” Ha says. “I’ve always enjoyed learning about people’s stories and trying to understand what makes them tick…and I thought maybe executive search is something I should try to explore.”
Ha’s 13 years in executive recruitment is not what he envisioned as a law student, when he was focused on public interest and international law, but in thinking back on his time at NYU Law, Ha recalls some experiences that turned out to be influential. “[Former Dean John Sexton] opened up my eyes to a lot of things,” Ha says. “He would host a biweekly dean’s lunch with really interesting alumni, many of whom actually took different career paths, and I think that probably got me thinking further on in terms of what a person can do with a law degree in addition to practicing law.”
During his time at the Law School, Ha dove into international law, working on the Journal of International Law and Politics, earning a fellowship at the Center for International Studies, and taking a China law class taught by Professor Jerome Cohen.
After graduation, he worked as a corporate associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Baker & McKenzie; and Linklaters. The last two positions took him to Singapore and London, where he enjoyed the opportunity to explore neighboring countries.
While he had gained valuable experience in corporate law, the business aspect of transactions and investing proved more attractive, Ha says. Still based in London, he joined a start-up venture boutique, Dawnay Day Lander Limited, as executive vice president and says he became “hooked” on early-stage investing as an avenue for supporting innovative ideas with the potential to improve people’s lives. His next position was as the director of European business development with a corporate advisory firm, Capital IQ, during its start-up phase, when he helped establish the business’s investment banking operations.
“My job was to figure out how to position [this financial software] in different markets in Europe, and take different cultural factors into account. What might work in Amsterdam may not necessarily work in Paris or London…and it taught me the importance of talent and company culture,” Ha says. “But having a legal background was always helpful in terms of creating analytical frameworks and trying to think through things and being able to blend risk with being commercial.”
Ha then spent two years with another start-up, the investment bank Evolution Securities China Limited, as the director of corporate finance, before deciding to move back to the United States to raise a family with his wife. “I had a few informational interviews [about executive recruitment] and found that the mission of developing talent and leadership consulting was appealing, based on what I’d learned from those start-ups,” Ha says. He joined Heidrick & Struggles in 2006.
Ha continues to exercise his passion for start-ups as an angel investor. “This is when I have my talent assessment hat on. I’m really backing the people as much as the idea,” says Ha. “Having lived through a number of start-ups myself, I know that the business plan will never go according to plan, projections will never be what they come out to be—and so if you have the right leadership and talent, they will figure it out. And that’s what I’m betting on.” —Jade McClain
Emily Reisbaum ’96: Law Firm Founder
Throughout her career, Emily Reisbaum ’96 has navigated the law firm world and the public sector, expanding her legal expertise while searching for the perfect career fit. When she didn’t find one, she created her own. “I knew I wanted to continue being a litigator and I knew I wanted to do it at a small firm, but I just didn’t know which one or with whom,” says Reisbaum.
In 2009 Reisbaum, a former assistant US attorney, was working at the law firm Brune & Richard and was wondering what she should do next. She found the answer on a Brooklyn baseball field while watching her sons play. Two other lawyers, Gregory Clarick ’90 and Nicole Gueron, also had sons in the league, and both were looking to make career changes, too.
They spent a few months researching costs and potential clients. At a certain point, Reisbaum recalls, they realized that they had a workable plan. Within six months, the lawyers launched Clarick Gueron Reisbaum—a litigation boutique focused on addressing clients’ business objectives in complex commercial disputes and art law, intellectual property, and regulatory matters.
At her firm, Reisbaum has developed a wide-ranging, often high-profile litigation practice that includes an ongoing #MeToo lawsuit against Artforum magazine and a settlement for the plaintiffs in a notorious art forgery case against the Knoedler Gallery—the subject of a recent documentary, Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art. She also secured a victory for the Related Companies in a dispute over the sale of a $10 million apartment designed by Zaha Hadid. Last year, she defended Audible.com against copyright infringement claims brought by seven book publishers over the “Audible Captions” program.
Reisbaum says her interest in law was sparked in college when she volunteered at a safe house for survivors of domestic violence and saw how the law had a direct impact on people’s lives. She says she chose NYU because of its “brilliant faculty and students, commitment to public service, and downtown New York location.”
“Looking back on it now in the position of someone who does hiring, I feel like it was a very important decision for me, because I think it’s harder to get certain jobs if you come from a [less competitive] school than NYU,” says Reisbaum. “I understood it at the time, but not as well as I do now.”
As a student, Reisbaum did a summer public interest fellowship; tutored students for Civil Procedure, taught by former NYU Law dean and former NYU president John Sexton; and worked as a teaching assistant for the first-year Lawyering Program. In her legal services clinic, she says, she fell in love with the “nuts and bolts” of trial practice and won a housing court trial.
“Her combination of warmth and intellect was infectious. Even then, it was clear that she would have an impact as a lawyer,” says Sexton.
Reisbaum joined Debevoise & Plimpton as a litigation associate, looking for experience in a large New York law firm that could broaden her career choices for the future. “I had this top-tier education as a lawyer; I wanted to make sure that my practice as a lawyer was also at the top,” she says. Reisbaum then joined the civil division of the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York—an environment that more closely mirrored the collaborative trial practice of her Law School clinic, she says—before returning to private practice.
At Clarick Gueron Reisbaum, Reisbaum says she feels she has landed in the intersection of what she calls a lawyer’s dream Venn diagram—a place where she enjoys the excitement of big-city litigation combined with the intimacy of a small firm and the benefits (and challenges) of being a business owner. “We’re uniquely for NYC, I think, a very happy law firm,” Reisbaum says. “We have an excellent team, we do important work, we do it very well, we love our clients, we have fun, and we have a work-life balance.”—Jade McClain
Amélie Baudot ’08: A Generalist General Counsel
When Amélie Baudot ’08 began working as a banking and restructuring associate at global law firm Allen & Overy upon graduating from NYU Law, it might have appeared like a detour from her devotion to public interest law and human rights. Seven years later, however, when she landed the role of general counsel and company secretary at the Global Innovation Fund (GIF), a $200 million London-based nonprofit fund focused on improving the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people, her career path didn’t seem so counterintuitive after all.
At NYU Law, Baudot, already armed with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in international relations, took classes focused on international law and human rights taught by John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law Philip Alston, Walter J. Derenberg Professor of Trade Regulation Eleanor Fox ’61, and the late Thomas Franck. Especially formative for Baudot was Beller Family Professor of Business Law Kevin Davis’s Law and Development course, which examined the role of both legal institutions and external organizations in developing countries.
As she began her legal career in the midst of a financial crisis, the adverse economic environment made the prospect of finding a public interest position challenging. As a summer associate at Allen & Overy, she had enjoyed cross-border project financing involving public-private partnerships in developing countries. Baudot reasoned that working on deals like these would help position her for a future role in international development.
As a junior lawyer, Baudot delved into some large cross-border insolvencies. “The roll-up-your-sleeves nature of restructuring work was really helpful for what I’m doing now,” she says. Baudot also logged considerable pro bono hours with Allen & Overy’s microfinance social investment group, including work for the Kenya Social Investment Exchange, which facilitates deals between entrepreneurs and foreign investors. In 2013, she heard about an assistant general counsel position at AgDevCo, a social impact investor and project developer focused on Africa’s agricultural sector. “I really pitched myself as a generalist lawyer, and I felt like that was what they needed,” she explains. “And I was right.”
AgDevCo was all about making deals. “I had to rapidly get on top of doing debt and equity transactions.... We were sometimes the only investor in early-stage companies, so you had to be rigorous but pragmatic in terms of what this business could take on,” she recalls. “Not letting the best be the enemy of the good was a real lesson I learned, and that’s harder coming out of a law firm where you strive for perfection. When you’re in-house, you have to be scrappy and strategic.”
Two years into her stint at AgDevCo, a recruiter came calling about a general counsel position at GIF. Baudot had the right experience: advising on direct investments for a donor-funded vehicle that was also a nonprofit. “It was early in my career to move to a GC position.... The CEO took a chance on me,” she says.
In addition to overseeing legal matters, Baudot also leads GIF’s gender equality fund. GIF’s diverse portfolio ranges in size from $230,000 in pilot funding for a nonprofit focusing on labor mobility as a solution to humanitarian resettlement, to a $15 million grant to drive smallholder farmer income improvements in six African countries. Convertible notes; preferred equity investments; and blended finance, the combination of public and private funds in a deal, are all part of the mix. GIF is also funding innovations for COVID-19 response and economic recovery.
“I always thought I wanted the classic UN career,” says Baudot, “but when I became a restructuring finance lawyer, I saw that those skills were a natural match for the impact investing world.” She thrives on the creative thinking her role requires: “I like start-ups. I love finding solutions to challenges as organizations grow.”—Atticus Gannaway
Playing His Own Tune: Craig Balsam ’86
“Music, theater, and film were always a big part of my life,” says Craig Balsam ’86. After choosing NYU Law partly because of its proximity to New York City’s music and theater, he participated in Law Revue three years running—writing the script as a 2L and doing script writing and music directing as a 3L—and wrote concert reviews for the student newspaper The Commentator.
“I guess, looking back, I could have seen my fascination with the entertainment industry, but my dad was a lawyer, a lot of people I knew growing up were lawyers, and I greatly enjoyed law school,” says Balsam. “It was always my intention to practice the law.”
But in 1990, just a few years into a legal career, Balsam teamed up with Cliff Chenfeld ’85—with whom he’d been playing music since law school—to found Razor & Tie as a direct marketing company specializing in compilation albums and reissues. By the time Balsam and Chenfeld sold the company in 2018, they had grown it into an entertainment conglomerate that included a record label, a music publishing company, an artist rights management organization, a media buying agency, and the popular children’s music brand Kidz Bop. Now a film and stage producer, Balsam says he’s built a career that has allowed him the flexibility to follow projects he’s passionate about wherever they take him.
After NYU Law, Balsam worked as a litigation associate at Robinson, Silverman, Pearce, Aronsohn & Berman in New York. He praises the mentoring he received but didn’t enjoy tracking his hours and felt that his personality wasn’t well suited to formal client interaction. He decided not to wait to change careers.
In Razor & Tie’s early days, Balsam and Chenfeld operated out of Chenfeld’s living room. Because they could not afford outside lawyers, they often had to do their own legal work. Balsam credits his wife, Jodi Balsam ’86, now an associate professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School and an adjunct professor of law at NYU Law, with providing needed support. “Jodi and I had just had our first child, right when I quit my law job, and Jodi working allowed me to be home with our daughter while working the flexible hours new businesses demand,” Balsam says.
“Even though [starting the company] certainly lifted some of the pressure I felt about blocking myself into a career, it added other concerns and pressures.… I wondered, ‘How am I going to support a family in New York City?’” Balsam recalls.
Fortunately, Razor & Tie’s compilation CDs found success. In 1994 alone, the company sold more than a million albums. In 2001, Balsam and Chenfeld created Kidz Bop, a music brand that features children singing “kid-friendly” covers of contemporary songs. As of 2018, Kidz Bop had sold more than 20 million albums.
Since Razor & Tie was acquired by Concord Music in 2018, Balsam has been focused on producing film and theater, though he and Chenfeld continue to be involved in the music industry through their company RT Industries, which owns hit master recordings from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Balsam says producing allows him “to help find and then bring impactful work to broad audiences.” His executive producing credits include the films The Last Five Years and How Sweet the Sound; his Broadway co-producing projects have included Hadestown and What the Constitution Means to Me.
“My work life feels very different now,” Balsam says. “At Razor & Tie, we had a large staff working on many projects in several business areas, so I spent 80 percent of my day reacting to issues and 20 percent doing proactive things. Now, although I continue to work on numerous projects in different areas of the entertainment business, it is the exact opposite: I am only reacting to what I am putting out there. The change has been good—let’s see where it goes from here.” —Alana Grambush
Emily Barker is editorial director, Atticus Gannaway is senior writer, Alana Grambush is a writer, and Jade McClain is a public affairs officer at NYU Law.
Posted September 11, 2020