By Andrew Cohen
Christopher M. Patti dedicated his career to helping University of California and UC Berkeley administrators manage complex legal issues. A nationally recognized leader in higher education law, he was a member of UC’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC) for more than 27 years, and most recently served as Berkeley’s chief campus counsel.
The affable Patti died tragically in a road cycling accident in August 2017 at the age of 59.
To honor his memory, OGC and Berkeley Law have established the Christopher M. Patti Legal Fellowship, which will go to a recent law school graduate interested in public service. Melissa Montenegro, a 2018 Berkeley Law alumna, is the first fellowship recipient. She will work full-time for one year both at OGC and at Berkeley’s Office of Legal Affairs (OLA).
“Melissa’s varied experience and her talents as a law student make her an ideal choice for the inaugural year of the fellowship,’’ Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UC General Counsel and Vice President for Legal Affairs Charles F. Robinson said in a joint statement. “Melissa has demonstrated discipline, determination, and a strong commitment to social justice—particularly in making justice more accessible to vulnerable populations and underrepresented minorities. We are thrilled that Melissa will be joining OGC and Berkeley OLA in September.”
Montenegro has worked as a law clerk at the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office and at Kazan, McClain, Satterley & Greenwood in Oakland. Previously, she was an AmeriCorps fellow at the Santa Clara County Superior Court Self-Help Center and interned for Judge Katherine Lucero of the Santa Clara County Superior Court’s Juvenile Division.
As a law student, Montenegro worked at the East Bay Community Law Center’s Youth Defender Clinic and was a staff editor for the Berkeley Journal of Entertainment & Sports Law. She was also active in the Women of Berkeley Law, First Generation Professionals, and La Raza Law Students Association.
A strong UC connection
“I’m excited about the wide breath of practice and specialty areas I’ll be exposed to, including constitutional law, contracts, employment, free speech, governance, and affirmative action,” Montenegro says. “Ultimately, the most appealing aspect of my upcoming work is the chance to serve the institution that made all the difference for me.”
The fellowship provides a unique, early opportunity to gain experience in the broad spectrum of issues facing public and nonprofit entities. Montenegro’s work will include legal research, drafting documents, and attending client meetings, hearings, and negotiations.
“I am beyond excited for what the next year has in store for me,” she says.
For UC’s Office of General Counsel, Patti took the lead on several high-profile matters, including a historic securities fraud case against Enron and a decision to open public access to internal Big Tobacco documents that the university had received from an anonymous source.
After joining UC Berkeley as the chief campus counsel in 2010, Patti served three chancellors and was a key member of the administration’s leadership team.
Patti represented the university in an array of complex matters, focusing on academic and student affairs, the First Amendment, and equal protection. A constitutional law expert, he steered litigation to protect the interests of the campus and worked extensively with government agencies, the legislature, community organizations, and the media.
Well-regarded as a knowledgeable, professional, and compassionate colleague, Patti was deeply committed to issues of equity and diversity, including access to higher education for all underrepresented minorities and the advancement of LGBTQ rights.
Patti was struck by a hit-and-run driver in August 2017 while biking in Sonoma County. The campus held a memorial for him the following month.
“From what I’ve heard, Chris was an extraordinary lawyer who had great integrity and wisdom,” Montenegro says. “During my interview, his colleagues described him as a wonderful friend and co-worker. Being the first recipient of this fellowship in his name is an incredible honor. I aim to be as Christopher was—someone who cared about people and about doing the right thing.”