Alum shares how he balances public, private sectors of law practice

Joshua Berman ’91 reclined in his chair and addressed the 10 students clustered around a table in a classroom overlooking the Arts Quad.

“The charm of a setting like this,” he said, “is there is no question too small or too big – anything you want to ask."

He started off his discussion by emphasizing the importance of taking classes that spark one’s interest, instead of being limiting to a specific career path.

Joshua Berman ’91 visited campus in February for a career conversation hosted by College of Arts and Sciences Career Development.

“I took Government 181, International Relations, I took some history courses and I realized what I really liked was the critical thinking and writing,” he said. “I didn’t have a pre-law kind of curriculum when I was here, I just took courses that I loved and I was passionate about.”

Berman said his most influential courses – The Psychology of Television, and Literature Between the Wars – weren’t those of a typical law student. And he took theater, acting and public speaking classes.

“My first speech for public speaking was on the history of Cornell hockey, which I thought was just the coolest thing,” he said.

Through classes like these, Berman learned to enjoy actively participating and engaging with fellow students and professors.

“I am not now, and I certainly wasn’t then, any great intellect,” he said. “[When I came to Cornell,] I was absolutely overwhelmed by my classmates. I was scared to open my mouth, I hid in the back and was happy to just take notes and be invisible. It wasn’t until I took these other weird and different classes that for the first time I was able to say, ‘Wait, I want to say something about Gatsby,’ and I started talking.”

With his newfound passion for public speaking and evidence-based debates, he went on to the University of Michigan Law School, focusing on trial work and prosecuting cases. With that experience, Berman started on a career path that has weaved in and out of public and private sectors of law.

“I’ve been super blessed by the diversity of the work I’ve been able to do,” he said, ticking off an impressive laundry list of trials he’s taken part in, including: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case; prosecuting Osama Bin Laden in 1998 and 1999; representing pharmaceutical companies accused of bribing federal officials; and representing sports teams under investigation for illegal scouting practices in the Dominican Republic.

Berman’s experiences have given him a respect for the value of practicing law in both fields.

“I think public service is vital. It has given me opportunities to try cases which are harder to find in the private sector,” he said. “I think there’s a balance – but to go into public service and be a trial lawyer to stand in a courtroom and say ‘My name is Joshua Berman and I represent the United States of America,’ it’s really amazing.”

Berman is a senior partner at Clifford Chance, representing and providing counsel to corporate clients, boards of directors and individuals in government and internal investigations, national security matters, white-collar criminal defense, congressional investigations, civil litigation, SEC enforcement actions and cybersecurity matters. Currently, he represents a number of individuals in the ongoing Special Counsel Investigation led by Robert Mueller, as well as related investigations.

Berman remains dedicated to pro-bono work and public service.

“I balance the ethical moral quandary (of being in private practice) by doing a lot of pro-bono work,” he said. “I represent a lot of clients that couldn’t afford lawyers otherwise: landlords, child custody cases, criminal defenses.” He recalled a recent family trip to a Texas border town, where he helped provide assistance to immigrants in a Catholic Charities relief center.

Ending his talk with advice for undergraduates wanting to follow a similar path, Berman stressed the importance of following one’s own individual passions — whether that be by enrolling in classes of interest, taking a chance on job applications or reaching out to others on LinkedIn.

“I can’t overstate the importance of this,” he said. “Take advantage of every opportunity you have here. Any course you take can change the way you think about problems. You learn things about yourself as you go through things. That combination of feasibility and going for what you want – that’s the key.”

Catherine Gorey is a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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John Carberry