Faculty Spotlight

An Interview with Professor Valerie Watnick
By Bob Freedman

BF: What did you do as a freshly minted graduate of Cornell Law School?
VW: I did what a lot of freshly minted grads do. I went to a big law firm in New York City—Mayor Lindsay’s former firm. It was called Webster and Sheffield. It was in the late 80’s—the boom years--and I spent a couple of years there. The firm folded, as did many of these mid- to large sized firms. I left before it did. In its day, though, it was a venerable New York institution. Right after that I had a really interesting job. I met a girl at a bridal shower. She told me she was at a small law firm that specialized in white collar criminal defense. She didn’t appear to like me very much and yet, when I sent my resume to her, she walked it over to the hiring partner—who knew?—and she suggested that they meet me. Over the course of about four months I was interviewed by a dozen lawyers that worked there. The firm was and is one of the premier white collar criminal defense firms in the city—very hard jobs to get—so I went from being a commercial litigator to this white-collar criminal work. It was a very high profile, exciting and interesting place to practice law, and I was extremely lucky to get the job.

BF: And pressured, too, no doubt.
VW: Not as much as you would think and I’ll tell you why. The guys who run it really deserve to be in a management study. They were excellent managers, great lawyers, and they hired top, top people. We were all from top law schools and most everybody had had judicial clerkships. What they did was they paid us a little less, and they gave us a little bit of a life. (At the other top places in the city, like many of the large mega law firms, you worked very hard and you made tons of money.) They just hired the best people and worked us a little less. It wasn’t crazy—it was just reasonable. It was a very interesting experience. Most of the junior people who stayed there went on to be assistant U.S. attorneys, and I thought about doing that but I wasn’t sure it was right for me. I had a baby, too, while I was there. So I decided not to try to be an assistant U.S. attorney, and it was a hard decision because the firm was a good launching pad for one of these coveted positions. I stayed a total of three-plus years, had my baby and stayed another year.

BF: And they were okay with that?
VW: It was a different time. When I first came out of law school, women were not “allowed” to wear pants. We had to wear skirts to the office. And when I had my baby—five or six years out of law school—there was a conversation about whether I would come back and I said that I would, and I asked if I could come back four days a week instead of five, and I did. But I wound up working more anyway, which is what everybody says. To give you an idea of how things have changed, through the early-mid 1990s it was unusual for women who cut back their schedules to be with their children to make partner at large firms. I had a colleague, whose wife who was at a big firm, and she cut her schedule down to four days a week because she had kids. She was the first female partner at a big firm in the city at that time to make partner at four days a week, and she’s still a partner at a large firm to this day. It was big news. So it really was a different time. And the 80’s were a crazy time to come out of law school because in the 80’s it was not uncommon to see teams of lawyers on cases and as we got into the 90’s, the teams were cut down to two people and clients became much more frugal.

BF: Was that your last experience in a firm?
VW: That was my last experience in a firm, yes. And then after that, I interviewed for a job at Bronx Community College. Did you know that?

BF: Yes, I read that. That’s a big leap from working in a high-powered law firm.
VW: Well, right. I always wanted to teach. When I was in high school I tutored Regents students and I loved it. I had kids who were failing and I would bring them up and they would pass the Regents and it was great. I just loved it. And I actually taught as an undergrad, and I taught in law school. As an undergrad I was a management TA, and then in law school I taught in the business law course at Cornell, and I actually managed all the law students who were the teachers in law school—the second year I was the teacher and the third year I was the manager.

BF: So teaching was always a big part of your life.
VW: It was. And I always wanted to do it. So when I left (law school), that was what I wanted to do.

BF: Before we move ahead, let’s back up a bit, because given your passions, I find myself wondering how it was that you majored in accounting.
VW: That comes from my father, who was a policeman and my mother, who was—no, still is-- a college professor. They both had struggled to get their educations. My father got his degree while he was working as a New York City policeman. They wanted me to have a skill.

BF: That’s not an uncommon story, particularly at CUNY. Many students will relate to your experience.
VW: Yes, in some ways I think it relates to our students. I tell them not to worry too much. I tell them to get a well rounded education and to take courses on things they are interested in studying. I tell them that so that they will bring passion to their undergraduate work and do well at it.

BF: Do they believe you?
VW: It depends…...

BF: Because the culture is so….
VW: ….pre-professional. The students are so focused on getting a job (pauses and smiles). On the other hand, my own daughter is a senior in high school and she wants to study art and sociology. And I worry, “Is she going to have a job, right?”

BF: Sure, like many parents.
VW: So to get back to Bronx Community, when I first interviewed for a full-time job, I didn’t get it. The reason was that they had somebody else they wanted but they said they would make me an adjunct. So I quit my (law firm) job to be an adjunct and they gave me only one course the first semester. But soon the chair said “You’re good,” and “OK, you can come back,” and he gave me two courses the next semester. And the next year there was an opening.

BF: A line became available.
VW: And I applied and then suddenly I was the person who they wanted for the position.. A few years later I was tenured there. I was doing research, but it was not really relevant to the community college mission.

BF: But they gave you tenure, and that must have felt good.
VW: They gave me tenure, and they gave me a promotion, but I knew I was interested in teaching at a four-year institution, where research was really important. We taught nine courses a year, and I was trying to do research and teach those nine courses a year…..four one semester and five another. I put out two law review articles while I was there. And then while I was on maternity leave with my third child, I saw an ad for this job (at Baruch) and as they used to say, “I got my job in the New York Times.”

BF: Really! That flies in the face of what many of us believe.
VW: Yes, yes, yes. And I interviewed for the job. I’d heard there were 300 applications and they hired three of us. When I interviewed for the job, I kept thinking “I can’t do this job. It’s too far away. It’s on the east side and I have a newborn at home.” (an Upper West Sider, Watnick laughs). But I felt incredibly fortunate to get the position at Baruch and was very excited to come here. You probably have a lot of questions.

BF: Here’s one: The Baruch undergrads—maybe not quite so much now, but years ago—a lot of them wanted to do accounting and go to law school, but now it seems as if many of them are more focused on “The Job.” In your case, the connection between accounting and law school isn’t something you’ve embraced so totally that you carry it with you every day of your life.
VW: Not personally, no, but accounting is considered to be excellent training for a lawyer.

BF: I was surprised to see you majored in accounting.
VW: Yes. I was good in math, so I figured that would be a good fit for me. I liked aspects of the curriculum. I liked the management. I liked the finance and the financial aspects of it, which were math oriented.

BF: You’ve been teaching law for fifteen years.
VW: I know, that’s wild. It shocks me when you lay that out there. I never think about that. But it’s true.

BF: Just wait. Wait until 30 or 35 years…..
VW: (laughs) Yes, I know.

BF: Now that you’re starting your tenth year at Baruch College, have you noticed any changes in the student body over this decade?
VW: They were always sort focused on getting a job and getting out of school, but I think the students are better. They’re more academically qualified than when I first started. And you can see it in the classroom. And they seem a little more sophisticated than they used to be.

BF: I was thinking about what you said about how you want students to get a well rounded education and these students don’t always seem to think about that.
VW: Right. But I encourage them to think about that.—about options, and to think about doing something they love. And I encourage them to think about grad school. I think some students have a capacity to do that. Some students feel more empowered, and might be more willing to do that. I also talk to them about whether they want to go to law school, and tell them that they don’t need to study anything in particular as undergraduates. They should study something they love, and do well. I also tell them that they all start off with the ability to do well, but that a lot of success is elbow grease. I think some of the students with the hardest stories are the most amazing achievers.

BF: It seems as if students are hungry for mentoring experiences that are hard to get in a commuter college, so when they connect with somebody like you, and they have an opportunity to hear you tell them, “Do what you love,” and “think about grad school,” even that little bit of connection is good for them.
VW: I hope so. I hope so. You know, my parents had not gone away to school. My mother was highly educated, ultimately—she has a master’s. She was the chairperson of the biggest department at FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology) for many, many years. Her whole career has been there. She graduated from there. My mother went to FIT because she was interested in fashion and it was near her house and she liked to draw. My parents hadn’t had the experiences that I had, so when I graduated from college, and I was offered a really plum job in sales at Procter and Gamble, I called my parents who said, “You can’t take that job. You’ve got to go to law school.”

BF: So it was an “either/or” moment.
VW: Yes, and I didn’t know what to do. And then I went to see one of my favorite professors. He said, “You got into Cornell Law School. You have to go.” And I listened to him. So I think that sometimes professors can have an impact. They can influence their students. I mean, I went because he told me to go! But I was 50-50. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. And I would do the same with my students. We can suggest routes to our students. Sometimes I suggest to my students that they apply somewhere other than New York, and sometimes they listen.

BF: We New Yorkers can be very insular….very provincial.
VW: It’s funny, because we have these kids who have come from all over the world. They speak two languages, but in some ways they’re reluctant to leave what they know as home, reluctant to venture out. They don’t want to leave New York. They don’t even want to go to Philadelphia. I encourage them to look outside the city for law school. Talk about encouraging students—I really, really encourage students to go to law school. Not everyone would agree with me but I think going to law school is the greatest thing in the world. And I think even in these times of heavy debt and the difficult job market, I think it’s great to go to law school. I think it is one of the most empowering experiences possible. To know how the legal system works, and to be able to enforce your own rights as a citizen is, I think, the most empowering thing to have under your belt. I’m blown away by it—all the time.

BF: It’s so interesting to hear you talk about the experience that way because the public perception of lawyers probably doesn’t jive with that basic notion….the importance of understanding one’s rights…
VW: and the way the system works. And what you can do to protect yourself.

BF: I know from your research that this is very connected to what you do and what you’re about, and I know that, as a parent and as a passionate professional these are issues that are so dear to your heart, and that you’ve been able to address them head-on because of the empowerment you describe.
VW: It’s especially so for young people. Sometimes young people fall into a trap where they get married and don’t finish their education. I think that’s such a huge mistake because you never know where life’s going to lead you. That’s why education is so important.

In Part II of the interview, Valerie Watnick talks about her research on the subjects of pesticide regulation, risk assessment, and the regulation of toxics, and the efforts of government to address these issues. She also responds to questions about her deep commitment to service to both the Zicklin School and Baruch College, including her activities involving assessment, accreditation, curriculum and improving the teaching and learning environment. All this and more in an upcoming issue…

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