Suneela Jain

Hometown: San Rafael, California
Current Job: Associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
Education: B.A. in Political Science and Public Policy, summa cum laude, University of California at Los Angeles, 2004; J.D., Yale Law School, 2010.
YLS Year: 2010
Activities at YLS: Editor of the Human Rights and Development Law Journal; Student Director of the Community Development and Financial Institutions Clinic; traveled to Argentina through SPIF; Student Director at the Schell Center.


Can you give me a general biographic overview of your career?

When I graduated from UCLA, I moved to Washington, D.C. and spent some time looking for a job there. I was hired to write the text for an introductory guide to international trade, which I did for a year. Following this, I worked for an employment discrimination law firm as a paralegal, and then worked at a café and taught some LSAT classes for Testmasters. I came to Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton after graduating from Yale.

What is the day-to-day experience like at Cleary?

It’s totally different every day. I think that’s the nature of transactional work. I started out doing capital markets work, switched to mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and now am focused primarily on corporate governance. My time right now is focused almost entirely on the corporate governance work for an IPO. Currently, my days are incredibly busy, and the minutes zoom by, but my hours really vary based on the project that I am working on.

I’m also involved in other activities at Cleary. I’m a member of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, the Pro Bono Committee and the Mentoring Program. Those activities figure more prominently in my days when I’m not working on a deal. I also try to attend as many training lunches as I’m able. It’s still a little amazing to me that I am both fed lunch and offered information that allows me to continue to learn at the same time.

No matter how busy I am, I try to start my day with some sort of exercise. My brain doesn’t function well unless I’ve been able to move around a bit.

What opportunities, if any, are there to engage in legal scholarship as an associate at a large law firm?

I think there are different types of opportunities if someone takes the initiative, and finds a partner who is also willing to help out. At Cleary, people write for journals, for our clients, for legal blogs or newsletters, treatises—all different types of legal writing. During my second year, a couple of partners invited me to write an article with them for the Delaware Journal of Corporate Law. More recently, I worked with a team inside and outside of Cleary to write a paper about the history of engagement between corporations and shareholders. The paper was for The Conference Board, and ended up being a pretty academic exercise. Lots of footnotes. From that opportunity, I’ve been able to learn quite a lot and have been able to meet an interesting group of people. I’m also participating in a webcast about the work that The Conference Board did (the paper was part of a larger project) later this month.


What was most valuable about your YLS experience?

Meeting other students. I met people who were inspired and who were inspiring. They were (are) fun, friendly, smart, good-hearted people who were curious about the world. Meeting people my age who were determined to—and felt they could—accomplish things in the world gave me an entirely different perception of what was possible. I loved being part of conversations with people who cared less about ideology, and more about practical outcomes.

Did helping lead a clinic at YLS help your career? If so, how?

The clinic work helped me in a couple of different ways. With respect to the work content for CDFI, I learned quite a bit about mortgage loan servicers and what was happening with the financial crisis. I also did some work for Grameen that gave me a window into U.S. microloans. At Cleary, one of my main pro bono projects is as the Chairperson of an Advisory Council to the Microenterprise Project. The project links community organizations with partner law firms, and the law firms provide legal services to small businesses who have gone to the community organizations seeking help. In 2012, my involvement with the project allowed me to work with people at Cleary to put together a legal clinic for businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy. I don’t think I would have had the confidence or awareness to get involved with these types of projects without CDFI.

The other element of the clinic work is simply making you aware of what is happening in some area or with some topic. My clinic experiences helped me to be part of conversations I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to contribute to. A good amount of being a lawyer is also being able to talk to people about a wide variety of things, particularly, in my line of work, about the economy. I think being able to add something to a conversation is important; it makes the discussion more interesting for everyone.

How did you make the decision to choose transactional work over litigation?

Litigation has never suited me. I’ve always found it difficult to be a pure advocate for one side. Transactional, for the most part, has a more cooperative aspect to it. I also moved towards transactional because I want to better understand how businesses and transactions work. These types of transactions can have consequences for such a broad range of people—and for the economy generally. Understanding the laws and motivations and practical day-to-day is important to me.

This is especially true for my current focus—corporate governance. My parents, like many others, have their savings and their retirement funds largely dependent on the health of the economy and the stock market. For me, corporate governance is personal. My parents have put their trust in the market. Through my recent work, I’ve met a lot of business people who understand that trust, and are interested in operating in a way that respects it. I’d really like to support that.


What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?

One of my biggest accomplishments was getting into Yale Law School. I grew up in the public school system, and Yale had never really been in my consciousness. After college, I moved to D.C. with a lot of different thoughts and hopes about what I was going to be able to, and then found that my opportunities were actually pretty limited. I didn’t know anyone there, and my undergraduate degree didn’t open many doors. When I chose to go to law school, I worked hard and was focused on being able to have as many options in terms of schools as I could. Being accepted to YLS was an achievement, and the opportunities and experiences I had there were beyond what I could have imagined. Attending YLS—the experience and the people—is one of the things that I believe will have one of the most long-lasting impacts on my life.

How have you balanced work/life?

It’s hard, because work can be entirely all-consuming. There are certain things in my life that I used to think were important, but which I’ve let go of, and other things that I realize are important, and I hold on to those as strongly as I can. I’ve realized that work ebbs and flows also, so some letting go is temporary, and you just need to make an extra effort to get it back when things slow down.

Still, there are certain things that are always important. One is spending time with my husband. We eat dinner together whenever we can. Exercise is also important to us, and we’ve found ways to do that together. Spring to fall, we go surfing up in Queens. If it’s during the work-week, we need to be in the water by 6:30. In the winter, we go snowboarding. It’s also important to us to spend time with friends. One of the ways we do this is to try host a Sunday dinner at our apartment with some degree or regularity. Nothing fancy, but a chance to see people more consistently. There are trade-offs, though. It’s not always easy, but we do our best to make it work. We haven’t figured it out; all of it is constantly a work in progress.

4.     ADVICE

What advice was most helpful to you as a law student, or what advice did you wish you had received?

I wish I had been told that time is short, much shorter than it seems. I think that during my first year at YLS, I was trying to prepare for things and to catch up. I felt like everyone had such strong backgrounds and all these things that they were passionate about—and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I think it’s great to just jump right in, look at many different types of law, and get as many experiences as you can while you’re at YLS. Out of those many experiences, you’ll find the one or two that inform what you want. You want to meet as many people as you can and try as much as you can. Be the best person that you can be because your peers will be the ones who will allow you to learn about things even after you leave the law school.

Students should try to get as much experience as they can by talking to invited speakers, participating in clinics, and taking various classes. There will be opportunities after law school, but your time at YLS allows you a chance to sample them in a way that you won’t have again.

How has being a woman affected you in your career?

In some ways, it’s neither here nor there. I am who I am and I’m a woman, and I always try to operate in a way that is honest and reflective of who I am.

At my firm, there is a strong interest in promoting and retaining women and in having more female partners, so I think there can be an extra effort to understand what the barriers are to that, and how things can be changed to better achieve that goal. People are eager to support more junior women who do good work and are interested in staying at the firm.

I do think, though, there are certain things that are challenges. If you’re a woman thinking of starting a family, you need to think about whether and when you’d want to start that; when you would want to take time away, how you can operate so that you can be healthy in the way that you need to be. In transactional work, the flows are big, and I think that it is hard for a woman to step away from her family in the way that the work asks you to do. Part of it is trying to figure out what your measure of success is. I think most of us really want to be “the best” at what we do. What does that mean if part of what you do is have a family, and have friends, and be healthy? If the only measure is work hours—which can always be expanded—you give up being “the best” at those other things. For women, I think these trade-offs are particularly acute. There are default ways of being “tough,” or “successful,” or “committed” that, I think, are more male—oriented. At the same time, I’ve seen many men struggle to explain that they need—or just want—to go home to be with their families because the default for them is an assumption that they will certainly put work first.

I think each person needs to make a personal decision about what is important to him or her, and how they will define what success means. It’s your life. It’s not a break from or a preparation for it. And you want to be proud of it. It’s no small challenge. Trying to figure these things out is something I struggle with all the time.

Is there anything else you would like to highlight or add?

I would advise that people shouldn’t be afraid to find their passions and stick with them. A person who hasn’t found something should try everything and should feel entitled to do so. Law school gives you tremendous resources to utilize, and the more that you can work with what you love, the more prepared you will be when you leave and try to start your career. I would just tell YLS students that they’re in a great spot in life and that as stressful as it can get, I hope that they try and have a great time, because there’s nothing else like it.