From Kapnick to Graduation: Class of '17 on How Close Bonds Born on a Ropes Course Shaped Them

Five graduating students

Some members of the Class of 2017 still chuckle when they remember the start of law school: the improv exercises and public speaking drills, the classroom sessions on personal warmth and nonverbal social cues, and—perhaps most memorably—the day they spent in the woods with their classmates, navigating balance-beam courses, passing one another through giant rope webs, and working together to crowd onto a tiny wood platform. Theirs was the first class to participate in the Kapnick Leadership Development Initiative, an intensive eight-module program designed to hone the communication, teamwork, and self-assessment skills that have become essential in today’s legal workplace.

Going in, most of the students had no idea what to expect. The Law School was the first of its peers to launch a leadership development program of this magnitude.

“I really thought it was going to be a bunch of trust-fall nonsense,” Kaitlin Beck, ’17, said, remembering her initial reaction to the program, a partnership with the University’s Booth School of Business that was the result of a $2 million gift to the two schools by Scott, JD/MBA ’85, and Kathleen Kapnick, ’84. “But I’m really glad you asked about it because Kapnick, as it turned out, was extraordinarily influential.”

The Class of 2017, like every group of Law School graduates, can’t be defined in any one way; they have diverse personalities, backgrounds, and legal aspirations. But as with every class, they are bound, too, by common experience and shaped by their time and place in both Law School and national history. 

The Class of 2017 were students under three deans: Michael H. Schill, now the president of the University of Oregon, Geoffrey R. Stone, a former dean who served as interim dean, and Thomas J. Miles, who took office in the fall of their 2L year. They saw the addition of new programs, including the Innovation Clinic, the Jenner & Block Supreme Court and Appellate Clinic, and the Hopi Law Practicum, and they were students during a time of intense national discussion about weighty issues like free speech on campus, same-sex marriage, and the ways in which police interact with communities of color. They were second-year students when President Barack Obama visited the Law School.

But when members of the Class of 2017 talk about the most formative non-academic parts of law school, many immediately mention their classmates—the debates that were as collegial as they were intense, the student organizations that shaped them into stronger leaders and better teammates, and the bonds that were born during that inaugural session of the Kapnick Initiative.

“I’ve made friends I’ll keep the rest of my life,” said Sai Yarramalla, ’17. “And it’s not just a core group—it’s a large group of people. And I think some of this has to do with Kapnick. Our class is really close.”

Recently, five members of the graduating class, Josephine Oshiafi, Richard Deulofeut-Manzur, Beck, Yarramalla, and Neha Nigam, shared a few thoughts about how they’ve grown as leaders, thinkers, and collaborators in the past three years—and how their fellow students contributed to the experience.

Josephine Oshiafi: ‘I don’t want to be content to be a passerby in the world’

In the late summer of 2015, just before the start of her second year, Oshiafi joined a small group of fellow students in South Haven, Michigan, for a Black Law Students Association retreat. The getaway was designed to introduce prospective BLSA members to the organization, and Oshiafi—who had left her home country of Nigeria to study economics and finance at Illinois College before coming to the Law School—was the organization’s new vice president.

It was, as Oshiafi remembers, a “glorious weekend,” a time of bonding and personal growth set against a poignant backdrop: the rise of the Black Lives Matters movement and increased national conversation about policing and implicit racial bias.

“It was critical for us to explore themes of what it means to be black, what it means to be a unified black body, and also to explore themes of struggle that the black community faces,” she said.

Oshiafi herself was growing, coming more and more into her own as a leader and a teammate.

“In your 2L year, you really begin to step into the larger Law School body, and that’s when Kapnick probably really does help because (it teaches you to) check yourself, to step back and learn about who a person is before making a judgment,” Oshiafi said.  

And she did just that, reminding herself to approach people and decisions openly and thoughtfully. As a BLSA officer, she aimed to be a servant leader. “You have to understand that it’s not about you,” she said. “You don’t embody the organization.”

When she entered law school, she’d vowed to try as many things as possible, which meant engaging with BLSA and other organizations, honing her transactional skills with the Kirkland & Ellis Corporate Lab, and building her advocacy skills with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

Ultimately, Oshiafi, who will be working as an associate at Cleary Gottlieb in New York, developed a greater clarity about who she is and what she hopes to accomplish as a lawyer. She feels more deeply connected to her heritage, and she’s learned that she can be many things, both as an African woman and as a lawyer. Much in the way that she pursued both transactional and advocacy work in law school, she plans to incorporate pro bono work into her practice. Some day she hopes to run a nonprofit that focuses on serving the needs of the African diaspora around the world.

“I learned that I don’t want to be content as a passerby in the world,” she said. “I think that lawyers are really called to a unique service. I think the education we get is very empowering, and we speak a language that not many other people know or understand. I think it’s a gift and blessing that I know I can’t waste.”

Sai Yarramalla: ‘I’m more vocal about my ideas because I know I can offer value.’

Yarramalla had been drawn to the Law School in part because of the size. He’d earned his undergraduate degree in economics from Texas Tech University, which has about 36,000 students, and he loved the thought of knowing everyone in his law school class.

But knowing everyone doesn’t automatically make it easier to speak up, and one of the things the Kapnick Initiative taught Yarramalla is that he has tendency to hold back—and that his natural reservation can make him appear under-confident. And so right from the start, he decided to push back against his own inclinations and deliberately seek out opportunities to present his ideas.

He began volunteering more in class, and he forged close relationships with a wide variety of classmates and professors, not just the people he saw in class. He took on leadership positions, including serving as the president of the South Asian Law Students Association, mentoring undergraduate pre-law students, and serving two years as treasurer of the Criminal Law Society.

“I’m not sure I would have done that otherwise,” Yarramalla said. “Just being aware that I needed to improve led me to make a conscious effort. Now I’m more vocal about my ideas because I know I can offer value.”

Last summer, when he was working as a summer associate at McGuireWoods in Chicago, a mentor complimented Yarramalla on his willingness to share his perspective.

“I really like that you have stated an opinion when you’re writing these memos,” the mentor told Yarramalla, who will join the firm as a corporate attorney focusing on debt finance. “A lot of people are afraid to do that.”

During law school, Yarramalla also made it a point to take four MBA-level classes at Booth—Real Estate Investments I and II, Taxes and Business Strategy, and Behavioral Finance—as well as Corporate Entrepreneurial Finance, which is offered at the Law School as part of the Doctoroff Business Leadership Program.

“Clients want lawyers who understand the business side of things,” he said. “I’ve been trying to work on that. I have an undergrad degree in business, but I wanted to build upon that. I think it will be invaluable to me in my career to be able to understand what the clients are doing so I can give them better legal advice.”

His efforts to be more vocal helped him to excel in his Booth classes, where he became increasingly comfortable with leadership roles. And in all of his classes, he felt the benefit of having classmates who were willing to speak up, too.

“I knew that people would be smart and would bring all these different perspectives and backgrounds to the classroom,” he said. “But it’s really amazing how much value that can add to your learning experience. That was the biggest surprise of law school—and a particularly pleasant one.”

Kaitlin Beck: ‘I’m comfortable knowing there are few things in life with concrete answers.’

Professor Emily Buss made a comment once that Beck never forgot. It was 1L year, right before the review period in Civil Procedure, and Buss was imparting wisdom that applied both in law and in life.

“She said we had to be comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing,” Beck said. “At the time, I was like, ‘Sure, sure,’ and of course I immediately wrote it down.”

Beck erupted into laughter at the memory. She is, by her own admission, a classic perfectionist; uncertainty never really has been her thing. But she gets Buss’s point now, and she’s taken it to heart.

“Now I’m comfortable knowing that there are few things in life with concrete answers,” she said. It took going through “the gauntlet of classes and Law Review and student orgs” to learn it, though.

Beck’s Law School experience was a tapestry of illuminating experiences and hard-fought wins. She served as the managing online editor of the University of Chicago Law Review, played Clinical Professor Alison Siegler in the 2015 Law School Musical, and traveled to Zimbabwe and Tunisia with the International Human Rights Clinic. During her second year, she led what was then known as Law Students for Reproductive Justice during a year of record-breaking fundraising and community-improvement efforts, celebrating when the chapter won a top award from their national organization. (LSRJ is now known as If, When, How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice.) During her third year, she participated in the Edward W. Hinton Moot Court Competition—and, along with her finalist partner Joe Egozi, ’17, won.

She got through all of it, she said, because of her classmates. They were the ones who spent hours helping her prepare for each round of moot court, and the ones who weren’t afraid to engage in heated debates in the Green Lounge, the journals office, or backstage at the Musical.

“I feel very privileged to be in an environment where I can have those intense discussions with people,” she said. “It’s always cordial, and I know they don’t think I’m a terrible person for having a different viewpoint. I don’t think we shift each other’s views, but it’s always good to put a face to the other side of the argument.”

Her classmates also were the reason she blocked out time for fun, whether it was spending five to seven hours per week preparing for the Law School Musical or making sure she never missed a pub night with the Bigelow section-mates she’d met during Kapnick.

“That’s what I mean when I say Kapnick was extraordinarily influential,” Beck said. Early in her first year, her Bigelow section—which participated in Kapnick under the team name Lafontant—began meeting every Monday at the University Pub. The tradition continued all three years. The group even celebrated bachelorette parties for three of their members, dubbing them “Butterette” parties in honor of the butter-yellow t-shirts her team wore during Kapnick.

“It has been one of the most important things I’ve done for my mental health in law school,” said Beck, who was part of a core group with near-perfect pub night attendance.

Each week, the pub group took the same circular table in the back, thanks to a standing reservation they made after showing up one Monday to find another group occupying their spot. Occasionally professors joined them: Buss has gone, and so have Richard McAdams, Daniel Hemel, and former Lecturer Ryan Doerfler, their Bigelow instructor. Jonathan Masur has visited multiple times.

It’s the close relationships with classmates and faculty that make the difference in law school, Beck said, noting that it's something she tried to impart to her own team when she became a Kapnick facilitator. Recently, she saw the section she’d mentored meeting for their own pub night, and she felt a twinge of full-circle satisfaction.

Beck, who will clerk for Judge Sheryl H. Lipman of the US District Court for Western Tennessee and then pursue public interest fellowships, said she’s more confident and assertive, and less risk-averse, than when she started law school.

“It’s been valuable to be surrounded by people who are always excelling and to realize that they’re my peers,” she said. “We have a really supportive community here, and people really are invested in seeing each other succeed.”

Richard Deulofeut-Manzur: ‘My calendar is now a wall of colorful blocks.’

Deulofeut-Manzur was sitting in his office at his summer law firm in June 2015 when the news broke: the US Supreme Court had just declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right in a 5-4 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Deulofeut-Manzur, then the incoming president of Outlaw, printed Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion and read it at his desk.

“I remember such a feeling of celebration,” he said. “I didn’t agree with all the legal analysis, but it was definitely something to see the tangible results of what the law can do.”

But the exciting news also provided an unexpected leadership challenge. “It was a very interesting time to be serving because same-sex marriage had been the big legal movement of the LGBT community for a decade or more,” Deulofeut-Manzur said. “So the real challenge for our organization was, ‘How do we pivot from here?’ That’s a conversation that is still happening at a national level. It was a moment of celebration and a moment of reflection.”

That fall, the Dean of Students Office brought Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, a Ropes & Gray partner who had argued part of Obergefell, to the Law School speak. Outlaw took the lead on planning the event, and the group spent much of the rest of that year exploring the immediate aftermath of the landmark decision.

Deulofeut-Manzur continued to find leadership opportunities throughout his three years, also serving as the jobs chair for the Federalist Society, the president of the Texas Law Society, the treasurer for the Latino/a Law Students Association, and a member of the Edmund Burke Society. His experience with Kapnick had given him advantages in two ways: by fostering the connections with his classmates and by highlighting the importance of making a good first impression.

Now, as he prepares to head first to a clerkship with Delaware Bankruptcy Judge Christopher S. Sontchi and then to a job with Haynes & Boone in Dallas, he can see the ways in which he’s grown. His arguments are clearer, his leadership skills are sharper, and he can manage hefty workloads.

“Law school is a ratcheting up of responsibilities, and you get the most out of your experience when you are on top of everything that you’re doing,” he said. “You have to recognize how much time you have and how can you budget it, while also trying to have fun and get to know your colleagues. My calendar is now a wall of colorful blocks and that’s totally fine.”

Neha Nigam: ‘I have a better sense of who I am and who I can aspire to be.’

Neha Nigam was sold on the Kapnick Initiative from the moment she arrived at the Law School.

“I think a lot of my peers were hesitant,” she said with a laugh, “but I saw the words ‘ropes course’ and I was like, ‘I want to do it again and again and again.’”

And, in fact, she did—serving as a Kapnick facilitator during both her second and third years.

As a first-year student, Kapnick provided a solid foundation, illuminating for her the importance of having warm interpersonal skills as well as competence.

“That was really important for me because in law school you interact with so many intelligent people, incredibly competent people—and sometimes you can feel a little bit of the Imposter Syndrome,” Nigam said. “It was a good reminder that it is important to not only have competence but to be warm. You think, Does your personality really matter? It does.”

Through Kapnick, Nigam refined her teamwork skills—which she also built working as part of the Kirkland & Ellis Corporate Lab and the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship—and learned effective conflict management. She worked to assess her own tendencies, comfort zones, and strengths. She learned to invest time in thinking things through.

“We’re so focused on being efficient as lawyers—we want to make quick decisions and say, ‘Yes, this is a good idea,’ or ‘No, this isn’t,’ but I’ve learned how rewarding it can be to be open-minded,” Nigam said. “All the modules we have really make you think about your purpose, who you are as a person, and how you deal with issues. That’s really helped me—I have a better sense of who I am and who I can aspire to be.”

On her first go-round as a facilitator, Nigam focused on helping the first-year students develop their own leadership skills, which sometimes meant pausing to evaluate whether her own approach was resonating. Sometimes she would catch herself deciding too quickly, or her fellow facilitators would encourage her to consider another perspective.

“I’d stop and think, ‘Is that really what I should be doing? Should I think about things a little more and try to be more creative?’” she said.

As a third-year facilitator, the lessons had taken root, and Nigam began to think about how her own skills had developed, and how she’d apply them in the workplace after graduation.

“The biggest thing that’s stuck with me is really how much I’ve grown in the past three years,” said Nigam, who will join the litigation practice at Winston & Strawn in Chicago. “I think that’s made me very proud and self-confident—and helped me realize that there’s still so much that I have to learn.”

She has also seen what it means to be a strong, independent female lawyer.

“It is important to form your own opinions and to be thoughtful about those opinions—but also not to let your perceptions drag you down or to let others step over those opinions,” she said. “I’ve learned to (hit that balance) between making sure everyone gets to say her piece and making sure my own opinions are known.” 

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