To get to the top of the class, do you have to study 10 hours a day and climb over the bodies of your classmates? Well, not exactly, say the following lawyers we talked to who finished tops in their class and who were named to the 2007 Rising Stars® list. Many mentioned a cooperative spirit at the top, while others say they didn’t even realize they were No. 1.
“I knew I’d been doing well on grades and had made law review, but I was rather surprised where I ended up,” says Gwendolyn Dawson, an associate in King & Spalding’s Houston litigation practice group, who earned grand chancellor status as the top student in her University of Texas Law School 2001 class.
What has top honors meant to these Rising Stars lawyers? All agree that it has opened doors for them, but they have varying views on how much of an advantage it is, as well as how difficult it was to achieve.
Valedictorian, Louisiana State University Law Center, 1996
Caroline Blitzer, 35, remembers her law professor cautioning beginning law students: Look to their right and then to their left; one student of those three wouldn’t be around for the second year. “My goal in the first year of law school was not to fall out,” says Blitzer, a partner at Vinson & Elkins in Houston.
Blitzer was salutatorian of her high school class in Baton Rouge, and graduated with honors from Duke University (with degrees in English and French), so she was familiar with academic success in competitive environments. Still, she maintains that achieving the top honor in law school was a passing thought, not a mission.
“You always worry about making the transition from college to law school. You always question how you’ll do.”
She says she was mostly a study-alone sort, although she was part of a study group of high-achieving law students and remembers it as a cooperative environment rather than competitive.
Her academic success helped her land a coveted clerk position for Judge Jacques L. Wiener Jr. in the U.S. Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit. She joined a New Orleans firm in 1997 and moved to Vinson & Elkins in 2000. Her primary practice areas are private equity, mergers and acquisitions, and securities offerings.
“It’s important to be near the top of your class when you’re from a small market like Louisiana,” she says. “It helped me in the move to Houston and an international firm.”
Grand Chancellor, University of Texas Law School, 2001
Gwen Dawson says she was only an average student in elementary school while moving from one suburban Houston school to another. Things changed in the sixth grade. “I just woke up and started paying more attention,” she says.
She was valedictorian at Tomball High School and graduated cum laude from Rice University in 1998.
Finishing at the top of her law school class was a bit of a surprise. “I found out in the first semester of my third year while I was studying in London,” she says. “I wanted to do the best I could, but I also wanted to experience things outside the classroom, and take time to enjoy my classmates and Austin.”
The 30-year-old in-house attorney for Exxon Mobil says her undergraduate years were actually more stressful than law school. “I earned two degrees at Rice [chemical engineering and environmental sciences engineering] in four years. It was a lot of credit hours. The load was lighter in law school,” she says.
She had set up a clerkship with Judge Carolyn Dineen King, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit, before her third year of law school, so her grand chancellor status didn’t come into play. She says it was mentioned in subsequent job interviews, and continues to be mentioned when she is introduced to clients or new associates.
Grand Chancellor, University of Texas Law School, 1999
David Isaak had a lot of higher-education experience by the time he enrolled at the University of Texas Law School in 1996, but the competitive atmosphere still surprised him.
Isaak, 35, graduated cum laude from the University of North Dakota, earned a master’s in English from the University of Illinois and planned to earn a doctorate. Then he changed his mind. The academic job market was soft and showed no signs of changing. “I didn’t want to invest six or seven years into getting a Ph.D. and not have a job to show for it,” he says.
Instead, he began looking for something that was “a little less ivory tower and something more hands-on.” He ended up in Austin studying to become a lawyer.
“I was actually surprised at how competitive it was,” he says. “Graduate school was almost viewed as a college of professors, both students and teachers. Law school was much more hierarchical.”
His buttoned-down mindset—“I generally approached it like a job,” he says—wasn’t intended to send him to the head of the class. “My purpose was to explore things while I was there. Once I got there, however, I became energized by the competition.”
Isaak, who specializes in representing clients in government investigations and criminal and civil litigation at David Gerger & Associates in Houston, says he didn’t find out about his top standing until the second semester of his final year. Of his grand chancellor status, Isaak says, “It certainly opened doors, but that’s all it can do. At a certain point, you have to stand on your own.”
KIMBERLY R. PHILLIPS
Valedictorian, Texas Southern University, 1993
The Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University grades on a bell curve, says Kimberly Phillips, and it employs an aggressive elimination process after the first year. “I just figured that if I made all A’s, I wouldn’t be victimized by the curve,” she says.
Instead, she set the curve.
Phillips, 38, a litigation counselor for Shell Oil in Houston, says she was a good but not great student through most of high school. By the time she reached law school, things had changed.
“It was clear to me that law school was very different and had to be taken very seriously. I didn’t want people to have better grades than me. Your law school grades can follow you forever,” she says.
After graduation, she accepted a highly coveted clerkship at the Dallas Court of Appeals, and then joined Gardere Wynne Sewell in Dallas before moving to its Houston office. She joined Shell Oil in the fall of 2006, and enjoys corporate law. “It gives me an opportunity to exercise a different set of skills. You essentially have one client—the company—and you can focus on the best way to do business while being a good corporate citizen.”
Phillips says her top-of-class status continues to open doors 13 years after graduating. “People who tell you that your grades aren’t that important are fooling themselves. I was given interviews with everyone I wanted to interview with,” she says. “It made life a lot easier.”
She adds that her No. 1 status was especially important because more prominent law schools overshadow Texas Southern University. “Law schools are rated like college football teams. If you go to a school like TSU, it’s important that you graduate at the very top of the class.”