LL.M. Professional Track Student Profiles

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Andrés Neira (1S, Chile)

Andrés Neira (1S, Chile)
Andrés Neira (1S, Chile)

“My interest in justice—in what is fair or not—is something that I try to apply in every aspect of my life,” said Andrés Neira of his motivation to pursue a career in law. “It is difficult and sometimes disappointing, but it’s worth it to try,” no matter how hard it appears to be, he said.

A Chilean citizen, Neira has spent a significant portion of his career representing his government in human rights cases related to the former dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

As a litigator in the Chilean State Defense Council, Neira has represented the state on civil and constitutional cases as well as corporate matters before courts at all levels of the Chilean judiciary. It’s a complicated double role, he said, because at the same time the state prosecutes cases against members of Pinochet’s regime, “it is also the civil defendant in cases of families of the victims who were detained and disappeared or executed” under that regime.

“It is a job that constantly demands new knowledge and skills,” he said.

Neira is also a professor at the Instituto de Estudios Judiciales Hernán Correa de la Cerda and the University of Chile Law School, where he earned a Masters in Business Law and is now studying for a Masters in Public Law. “I want to improve how law, particularly constitutional law, is taught in Chile,” he said. “We learn only from the text of the law, but the jurisprudence and practice are fundamental to better understand the law.”

Neira enrolled in Berkeley Law’s LL.M. program to deepen his expertise in constitutional law and human rights, particularly in the area of transitional justice (i.e., judicial and non-judicial measures implemented by different countries to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses). He knew this experience would be invaluable in elevating his professional and academic careers, but didn’t expect the personal benefits he’s found in the Bay Area.

“Living with my family here has been a lovely experience,” Neira said. “People here are amazingly friendly. My wife Marta and my little son Lucas love Berkeley. We felt at home from the beginning.”

He cited the beautiful campus and the faculty who are passionate about teaching as highlights, but, like many professional LL.M. students, the community has made the strongest impression.

“For someone who came from Chile, at the end of South America, the opportunity to meet brilliant people from all over the world is something that is not easy to accomplish,” Neira said. While they are all here first and foremost to learn, he said, the summer students share a strong bond “We know that our time here is short and certainly will be one of the finest moments of our lives.”

Fernanda Guttmann (2S, Brazil)

Fernanda Guttmann (2S, Brazil)
Fernanda Guttmann (2S, Brazil)

Growing up in a small mountain town outside Rio de Janeiro, Fernanda Guttmann was raised in an environment full of books that inspired dreams of the world beyond her daily horizons. “My passion for reading brought a curiosity to discover more about other societies, their history, thoughts and vision of life,” she said. But in a time before the internet, studying in America seemed a very distant prospect.

Guttmann rode her interest in comparative cultures through law school and into a role in the legal department at one of the world’s largest international record labels, Warner Music. Working as a business affairs manager for Warner’s Brazilian affiliates, she handled a wide range of legal activities including contracts, litigation and artist negotiations. She also helped navigate uncharted legal terrain through the industry’s transition from physical to digital formats.

After 15 years of practicing intellectual property law, Guttmann decided it was time to explore the intersection of arts, entertainment and technology as an academic.

“The Brazilian tech industry is thriving and experiencing a unique moment right now, despite the economic crisis,” Guttmann said. “Berkeley Law is the best place to learn from world-renowned faculty and stay updated on tech-related topics.”

Guttmann decided to deepen her expertise with the Certificate of Specialization in Intellectual Property and has also developed a robust interest in privacy law.

“The incredible classes of Professor Paul Schwartz instigated me to study recent events that have occurred in Brazil concerning privacy law,” she said, noting her surprise in discovering how universal the issues and policies are in this emerging area of law. She is currently working on an article analyzing the constitutionality of using encryption in private communications under Brazilian law.

Guttmann said her experience here has provided a platform to expand her professional circle and make new friends from diverse backgrounds and cultures. “It’s been a privilege to be part of an innovation ecosystem that offers the best program in intellectual property in the world,” she said.

Ayodele Olugbenga Babalola (1S, Nigeria)

Ayodele Olugbenga Babalola (1S, Nigeria)
Ayodele Olugbenga Babalola (1S, Nigeria)

The sunny California weather is not quite as impressive to Ayodele Babalola, who is from the southwestern part of Nigeria. “Nobody told me how chilly it gets at night,” he said laughing. “But the people here are warm. Everyday, when I’m walking to school, someone will smile at me. It’s reassuring, like everything is okay.”

After practicing for six years, mostly in civil and commercial litigation and arbitration at a law firm in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, Babalola decided to focus his practice on energy law.

“My interest stemmed out of the electricity crisis that we have presently in Nigeria,” he said, where gas-powered hydro-plants are currently the main source of electricity. Babalola said California was the clear geographic choice to earn his LL.M. since the state is a leader in renewable energy, such as solar power and wind farms.

“Nigeria has a lot of potential [to build alternative energy sources] because the sun there is really crazy and the wind too,” he said. “I knew that I would learn a lot about renewable energy systems here.”

Babalola is studying for the law school’s new Certificate of Specialization in Energy and Environmental Law. He said the academic experience has been “intellectually refreshing,” as compared to legal studies in Nigeria. “When a professor is talking about a particular issue, and then he flips it over and asks us to consider a different perspective, it makes you think on your feet.”

His time in Berkeley is also expanding his cultural horizons. “The LL.M. class is like the world in one classroom,” Babalola said. “Everyone is so friendly and eager to learn about my culture, perspective and experiences. After the first week, you would think everyone has known each other for years.”

Although he misses his wife (they are expecting in November) and family, he knows the investment will provide long-term benefits for them—and for his career. “Everybody back home knows that to be here at Berkeley Law is a big deal.”

And he takes that responsibility seriously. “I have always been fascinated with speaking on behalf of people and fighting the good cause,” Babalola said. “Berkeley shares the same motto with my high school, ‘Fiat Lux,’ so I am always reminded to show the light wherever I go.”

 Lasse Vuola (2S, Finland)

Lasse Vuola (2S, Finland)
Lasse Vuola (2S, Finland)

“I have always been a competitive soul, but the main competitor looks me in the mirror,” said Lasse Vuola. As a father, a senior attorney at one of Finland’s most prestigious law firms, co-founder of a startup, and president of Berkeley Law’s Student Organization for Advanced Legal Studies (SOALS), even his demanding reflection must be impressed.

After completing his mandatory Finnish military service as a paratrooper in the country’s Special Forces, he chose to pursue the law because “it provides room for expressing oneself and doing business.”

Vuola began his legal career as a civil litigator at a boutique law firm. But after representing victims of the 2008 Kauhajoki School massacre in actions against the state of Finland, “I realized that I am too emotional to have private parties as clients,” Vuola said. It was the final impetus to push him over the cliff into business law.

His practice now focuses on advising startup ventures and M&A transactions and litigation for energy-sector companies. On the side, he co-founded Funding Tool, a peer-to-peer platform that automates the process of early-stage startup fundraising, which has raised approximately $1.3 million and is preparing for Series-A funding.

With so much going on, it’s amazing Vuola could find the time to dedicate even a few months towards schooling. But the self-proclaimed multitasker said the prestige of UC Berkeley is highly valued in Finland, and “the flexibility of the professional LL.M. program was the final argument—I did not even apply anywhere else.”

The program has been a life-changing experience, Vuola said. Guidance and advice from leading international business law scholars made an immediate impact on his practice. He has also taken advantage of the proximity to the entrepreneurship hub of Silicon Valley.

As president of SOALS, he and fellow members focus on creating opportunities for students from different cultures and religions to come together. In addition to group outings to Napa, the annual potluck, and post-exam barbecues, SOALS also hosts an Eid al-Fitr event celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast. Vuola said that, especially amid some of the recent negative rhetoric, “embracing the traditions of our Muslim friends and other cultures really shows that we are one world.”

In an increasingly global economy, Vuola sees communicating with people from different backgrounds and learning the manners and customs of different countries as essential competencies in the international business sector. Simple conversations with friends provided insight and perspective as to how the Funding Tool model might be used under the laws of different jurisdictions. He has also formed connections that helped his company sell their tool to organizations in China and Russia.

“I think the human capital may just be the most important asset of this experience,” Vuola said.

Celeni Kristine Guinto (1S, Philippines)

Celeni Kristine Guinto (1S, Philippines)
Celeni Kristine Guinto (1S, Philippines)

“Studying in the U.S. has always been a dream,” said Celeni Guinto, but patriarchy and gender inequality is severe in the Philippines and family values rank very high in the principles she cherishes. So when her father and fiancé encouraged her to pursue her dream before she married, she decided to invest in herself and her future family.

Guinto is encouraged by the large number of female professors and classmates here who are successful in both their professional and family lives. “They inspire me to have the grit to make it happen for myself as well,” she said.

For a woman who was chosen to be a court attorney (the equivalent to a U.S. law clerk) for an associate justice of the Philippines Supreme Court right out of law school, Guinto has plenty of grit. “The first case I worked on involved the issuance of a protective writ to prevent an assassination attempt,” she recalled with pride.

But although she is passionate about advancing justice, Guinto is concerned about the overall integrity in the Philippines’ legal system. “Our judiciary is mired with allegations of corruption. What I admire most about my boss is that he really emphasizes the importance of integrity.”

Having attended the top public university in her own country, she said Berkeley Law was an easy choice. “There is so much freedom of thought, and the progressive views here are just so refreshing. The people are all smart but also diverse from one another.”

Guinto has become close with fellow Filipino PLL.M.s, but she has also found common ground with people from different parts of the world.

She recalled a Memorial Day road trip to Lake Tahoe with a large group of students from the 1S class. “We all belted out Backstreet Boys songs, because even though we grew up in different places, we all listened to the same things. It was adorable.”

Although Guinto loves the “college town” experience of living in Berkeley and is excited to visit the new friends she has made all over the world, she looks forward to returning to her family and work in the Philippines, “because home is home.”

After completing the professional LL.M. program, Guinto plans to earn additional experience working in international business settings and teaching. Ultimately, she hopes to contribute her own integrity to improving the divisive political atmosphere in her country as a member of the judiciary.

“I strongly believe and adhere to the rule of law,” Guinto said. “It keeps our constitutional balance, it’s what makes law and judicial enforcement predictable. It’s all that we have.”

Hu Yi (1S, China)

Hu Yi (1S, China)
Hu Yi (1S, China)

“I am here to complete what I should have done a decade ago,” said Hu Yi.

Growing up in a “tier-3” (small) city in the Shaan Yi Province of China, Yi is the first person in her family to become a lawyer. After graduating from the top law school in Beijing in 2003, she was deterred from her plans to pursue an LL.M. in the U.S. by visa issues.

More than a decade later, after earning an LL.M. at the University of Edinburgh Law School in Scotland and stints at prestigious international law firms King & Wood Mallesons and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Yi became the general counsel for Verizon Telematics China in 2014.

Even after all she has accomplished, “there is still room for improvement,” Yi said. And that’s why she’s here.

“My legal practice, from the very beginning, has had many connections with foreign investment in China from western countries,” Yi explained. “Now I am working for a U.S. company, so an LL.M. degree from an elite U.S. law school, especially the qualification to practice law in the U.S., will be a great merit.”

As a busy executive and mother of a four-year old daughter, flexibility was important to Yi. “The LL.M. professional track is so unique that we legal professionals can balance among work in our home countries, study and family,” she said.

In her role at Verizon, Yi focuses primarily on business issues, such as mergers and acquisitions, securities, private equity investment, foreign direct investment and general corporate practice. But since it is a technology-based company, she may decide to study intellectual property while she is here, given Berkeley Law’s impressive IP faculty and the hi-tech environment of Silicon Valley nearby.

Although she has had little time for socializing given the intensive coursework, Yi feels confident that the connections she is making at Berkeley will benefit her career going forward, “as China and other Asian countries are growing more and more international.”