Today’s Academic Success Story profiles Varty Hindoyan, a brilliant lawyer who has always been far too accomplished and wise for her age ;) She’s been a very close friend since we met in 5th grade at the tiny C&E Merdinian Armenian Evangelical School 19(!) years ago.
Our educational paths diverged upon graduating from the 8th grade, and Varty eventually pursued her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), where she (unsurprisingly) graduated magna cum laude (i.e., “with great honor”) in (amazingly) just three years. As if these achievements weren’t enough to make many of us awestruck, she then completed her J.D. at Berkeley Law.
If you’re ever worried about getting too comfortable with your accomplishments, I encourage you to get to know Varty. Be prepared, however, to be dazzled by how well-read, well-traveled, and persuasive she is (I unfortunately speak from experience).
Shirag: What are you currently up to?
Varty: I’m an attorney at Venable. I’m a trial and appellate commercial litigator focusing on intellectual property and entertainment matters.
Shirag: (Laughing) What does that mean for a non-lawyer like me?
Varty: (Also laughing) I’ve been meaning to refine my elevator pitch for non-lawyers. I help companies whenever there’s an actual or threatened lawsuit on matters ranging from breach of a contract to copyright and trademark issues.
Shirag: Why did you decide to attend Penn for undergrad?
Varty: So… I have my funny story and my real story.
Shirag: I want to hear both!
Varty: My funny story is that I wanted to get as far away from Los Angeles, where I grew up, without leaving the continental US. My “real story” is that Penn was the only school where I would enter with a declared major: Philosophy, Politics, Economics. I think they stole the idea from Oxford or Cambridge. It’s interdisciplinary… Basically a major for people who can’t choose.
Shirag: What did you enjoy most about attending Penn?
Varty: It was my first time living outside LA. That was huge for me. Being in a different part of the country, experiencing the seasons. Penn also has a nice undergraduate climate; they put a big focus on undergraduate life. I loved that. They pretty much let you do anything you wanted academically. If I wanted to take a different class to fulfill a requirement or take a class in a different college, I could do that. It was also cool to be surrounded by people with such big career goals, like working for the U.N. or running for Congress.
Shirag: What are the top 3 things students should consider in choosing an undergraduate institution?
Varty: On the practical front: ranking. Certain careers and grad programs heavily weight against people who didn’t attend top-ranked schools. I tell people to attend the best school they can get into. I had a friend who wanted to pursue engineering and was deciding between Penn and Berkeley. Penn was ranked higher, but Berkeley was better for engineering. She chose Berkeley, which was great for her.
I think that smaller private schools cater better to students because they feel that if they’re nicer to you during college, you’ll donate more money later. They make it easier to get more out of your education academically, as well as financial aid. You get more one-on-one attention.
Another aspect is personality driven. I guess you could call it fit. Going to college in an urban environment was important to me. I wanted to spend my formative years in a place I was interested living in. I could go out and try new things in a city like Philadelphia. But there isn’t one school for everybody. I remember a girl living on my floor freshman year, who left Penn after a semester and returned to the Midwest. Philly was too urban for her and she couldn’t handle it.
Shirag: What was it like for you graduating in 3 years? Would you do it again?
Varty: I wouldn’t necessarily recommend graduating in 3. I liked saving money but I feel I missed out on certain experiences my friends had. Beyond academics, college provides life education. Would that be worth the extra $20,000 to stay an extra year? Maybe not, but I’d urge people to consider it. I graduated early because my financial aid got cut and I had enough credits. At the time it felt like an easy decision, but not so much knowing what I know now.
Shirag: What led you to pursue law?
Varty: I never thought I’d be a lawyer growing up. I always told myself I wouldn’t become a doctor or lawyer. But something changed in college. The year before graduation, I went back and forth between becoming a teacher or going to law school. With law, I specifically wanted to be a first-amendment lawyer, working to protect and expand journalists’ and media’s rights to both access and dissemination of information. For example, media companies will sometimes get sued for defamation for publishing something negative about a company or journalists might be denied access to important documents. Companies use litigation to shut down journalists they don’t like. This is a big problem around the world, much bigger than in the US where we have real built in legal protections. I had seen these problems when working in Armenia with an amazing group of investigative journalists the summer after my freshman year. But my first run in was on a more local and personal level, back in high school when I was Editor-in-Chief of our school paper. My school’s administration threatened our ability to publish the school paper because of an article they didn’t want going out. I had to fight for our autonomy. And I guess I caught the legal bug then.
But there was a part of me that wanted to work with kids and make a difference teaching, so I applied to Teach for America. But I was worried I would get too attached to kids from adverse backgrounds that I wouldn’t be able to help. It was an absolute reality that some kids would fail because the odds were against them and not that they weren’t smart or working hard enough. No matter how much I tried, some would not succeed, and I didn’t think I would be able to handle that.
Shirag: What’s the formula for a successful law application?
Varty: I hate to say this, but the LSAT represents one-third to one-half of the admissions formula for most schools. Next in importance is your GPA and undergrad institution. The third big key is your personal statement. Go for a differentiating essay. Most law school applicants are English and History majors who want to save the world (laughs). If you have a different background or skill set, that’s actually better because it helps you stand out. I remember during my first day at Berkeley Law, the admissions dean gave a speech where he specifically mentioned all the unique backgrounds among the incoming class, like the former firefighter and the prison chaplain. It’s good to focus a lot on your personal statement, which is one of the few things you can actually control by the time you’re applying.
But I would say much of it begins when you first start college. Not all freshmen appreciate how important their grades and LSAT scores will be. In fairness, not everyone appreciates that they may be applying to grad school a few years down the road. So I would tell everyone going in to act like they will, so that if they do apply their grades aren’t a hindrance.
Shirag: What do you wish you knew before pursuing law?
Varty: How 80% of students go in with grandiose dreams of saving the world. On the other hand, some students have lawyers in the family and know better. Then you get in to a law school and feel this huge push and pressure to go to the best law firms because you’ve been going to the best schools and achieving the best grades your whole life, and now it’s time to work at the most prestigious place and make the most money. It’s hard to step away from that, especially when you accrue a lot of debt. I’ve never seen anyone with less than $80,000 in debt upon graduating. That influences the work you pursue. So often people set aside their initial dreams to take the better paying job offers. But a lot of schools are trying to combat this by creating loan repayment programs for students who go into the non-profit or government sectors.
We also work a lot of hours. I didn’t appreciate how soul-crushing the work can sometimes be. There is interesting work, but it sometimes feels few and far between for junior attorneys in big law. So you have to be more proactive (or move to boutique or mid-sized firms) to get the more interesting types of assignments earlier in your career. But it’s a trade-off in pay.
Speaking as a litigator, there’s often a big difference between plaintiff’s side and defense work. I generally prefer the latter because I think people are a bit too litigious, but ultimately I love pursuing cases where I believe the side I’m representing has been wronged. I should also mention that I love winning. So if you’re competitive and like winning (Varty definitely does), litigation can be fun.
People need to think about all of this and talk to other lawyers before making their decision. I think people use law as a backup because they don’t know what else to do, but the market is saturated and it’s an expensive path for a backup vocation.
One more thing I wish I had known is how easy it is to reach out. People are so willing to help. If people reached out to me, I’d be glad to help. People don’t realize there are actual resources out there.
Shirag: How has law met your expectations? Any surprises?
Varty: It’s a challenging career, and that’s both positive and negative. In a positive way, I’d be bored with cases that are not complex intellectually or legally. I’ve had the pleasure of having great cases with my current firm. I also like working with smart and creative people. It may sound weird, but creative people are most successful; they think outside the box. I like that creativity is rewarded in my profession.
I have also been surprised by how much I love oral argument in court. I like getting up there, making my case, and proving the other side wrong. My favorite war story is when I once got up to argue against the other side’s lawyer two weeks after he had argued against one of my partners. At the prior hearing, he had conceded points and had all but given up winning from the outset. But that day, he was aggressive, made up facts, and misquoted case law—perhaps because I was a woman or much younger than him, and he thought he could get the better of me. It only invigorated me. I knew the material well—it always pays off to be more prepared—and exposed his misrepresentations and won. It’s fun articulating arguments cogently and persuasively, but it’s definitely not like Law and Order.
Shirag: Any other advice you have for individuals who want to pursue law?
Varty: In law school, there are realities of how quickly you need to pursue certain opportunities like clerkships. I missed the boat on that. Some people from underrepresented backgrounds don’t know this stuff. Try to find a helpful alumnus or mentor early, find resources, and talk to upperclassmen so you don’t miss those opportunities. Some schools are also beginning to create groups, like the First Generation Professionals at Boalt where I serve as a mentor, to pair students who were the first in their families to go onto professional school (and sometimes even the first to go to college) with alumni of the same background.
Also, for those people who think law is like Law and Order: A) the show is not realistic, and B) it’s just a segment of what lawyers do, even in litigation. There are so many ways to practice law. For example, there’s a whole area of law for the non-litigators or introverts. You can take part in deals, draft contracts, help orchestrate mergers and acquisitions, and do copyright and trademark clearance work. For example, some in-house lawyers do half business stuff, half legal stuff.
Shirag: What advice would you give 21 year-old Varty?
Varty: Take law school more seriously. Undergrad was fun because classes and topics were interesting. Law school classes require more rote memorization, which is not as fun. When you know it’s your last degree, you treat it as a class you have to pass, but sometimes I wish I had paid more attention in certain classes because the issues do come up in your career. But on a more personal, non-professional note, I think my younger self nailed it with plenty of traveling and generally enjoying life.
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