By Andrew Cohen
Different as their career journeys may be, the trio honored at Berkeley Law’s recent Citation Award ceremony share a deep appreciation for how the school paved those paths.
During a spirited luncheon ceremony in San Francisco, Young Alumni Award winner Quyen Ta ’03, Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award winner Robert Cooter, and Citation Award winner Noel Nellis ’66 all conveyed heartfelt admiration for Berkeley Law.
Ta, who grew up in a small village in Vietnam, was among the thousands who escaped that nation’s humanitarian crises on fishing boats in the late 1970s. She was 2 years old, her brother a month old, when they fled with their parents.
After some time at a refugee camp, Ta’s family eventually arrived in the United States and settled in San Jose. Living in subsidized housing in a rough area, Ta’s mother had her purse snatched in front of their apartment building, and her father suffered a severe head injury during a robbery while taking out the garbage.
Yet her parents instilled an optimistic outlook—and the importance of education. Ta graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude at UCLA before enrolling at Berkeley Law. “Being part of this institution made all the difference for me,” she said during her acceptance speech. “Our community is remarkable and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.”
In law school, Ta helped establish Berkeley Law’s Coalition for Diversity, served on the Admissions Committee, and was an active member of the International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Asian American Law Journal.
Ta, whose practice focuses on consumer class action defense, intellectual property, and other high-stakes business disputes, joined Boies Schiller Flexner as a partner in January after 11 years at Keker, Van Nest & Peters. She has won many awards for her career achievements, and for striving to make the legal profession more inclusive.
“For women, people of color, people who grew up poor like me … my story is as likely as you winning the Mega Millions lottery tonight,” she said.
An unlikely legal pioneer
Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who emceed the event, declared that, “If there was a Hall of Fame for law professors, Robert Cooter is someone who would be chosen on the first ballot. … Very few professors can say they’re responsible for creating a new field, but he did it with law and economics.”
Cooter came to Berkeley in 1975 and joined the law school in 1980. Co-director of its Law and Economics program, he co-authored the subject’s seminal textbook. Now in its sixth edition, the book is translated into nine languages and the online version has been downloaded more than 400,000 times.
Recent winner of the American Law and Economics Association’s prestigious Ronald H. Coase medal, Cooter has received numerous awards and fellowships for his pioneering work.
“Every morning I get up and say, ‘Today, I get to do exactly what I want to do.’ It’s the greatest job in the world,” he said.
Cooter regularly teaches the economic analysis of law, and has taught many courses jointly with lawyers—including contracts, torts, corporations, and financial services. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he co-founded the Latin American and Caribbean Law and Economics Association and the Berkeley Electronic Press.
Never formally trained in law, Cooter said, “When this law school hired me … what I knew about law, you could write on an aspirin tablet. I want to thank my colleagues for taking an enormous gamble on me.”
Honoring “Mr. Berkeley”
Nellis’ career reflects his belief that lawyers should serve the public good. Of his many major projects as a real estate lawyer, he is proudest of two outside counsel roles for the University of California: creation of the UC Merced campus and the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay.
Nellis spent 18 years at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe after 30 at Morrison & Foerster. He chaired the real estate departments and was involved in management at both, helping expand them into global firms.
Chemerinsky noted that classmates dubbed Nellis “Mr. Berkeley” for his relentless volunteer work with the university. Nellis has served as president of the Berkeley Law Alumni Association, helped created the Berkeley Center for Law and Business, and chaired multiple capital campaigns.
“UC Berkeley and the law school are two of my proudest associations,” he said. “The quality of the law school begins with the faculty, and I was very fortunate to be taught so many extraordinary professors.”
Nellis, who has held leadership posts at top real estate professional associations, is board chair of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and a UC Berkeley Foundation trustee. For all his success, receiving the law school’s highest honor was clearly special.
“Over the years, I’ve been so impressed with the contributions made by the winners of the Citation Award,” he said. “I’m truly humbled to be asked to join such an illustrious group.”
Chemerinsky closed the ceremony by thanking John Kuo ’88 for his two years as alumni association president, welcoming Karen Boyd ’96 as incoming president, and toasting the day’s honorees.
“This truly is an incredibly distinguished group of people,” he said of Ta, Cooter, and Nellis. “Our Citation Award committee could not have possibly made better selections.”