St. Olaf Magazine | Winter 2020

Law & Order

By providing students with strong writing and analytical skills, hands-on legal experience, and a supportive alumni network, St. Olaf College prepares Oles well for a career in law.

Matt Stennes ’95 always knew he was interested in law. His interest was sparked by the simple explanation his father, an attorney, always shared about the purpose of the profession: “Lawyers help people solve problems.”

When it came time to look at colleges, Stennes sought an education that would combine the values and intellectual rigor of the liberal arts with a strong preparation for law school. He found a perfect fit in St. Olaf College.

During his years on the Hill, Stennes made use of the college’s extensive alumni network to find a legal internship in the Twin Cities, and he honed his communication skills in English classes and by writing for the college newspaper, the Manitou Messenger. He graduated with degrees in economics and political science before continuing on to Harvard Law School.

From there, Stennes returned to Minnesota to serve as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Ann D. Montgomery. After his clerkship, he moved to Washington, D.C. to work as an associate at a large national law firm. Stennes later served as a federal prosecutor in the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. He then made the move back to Minnesota to work for Medtronic, a Minneapolis-based medical device company focused on biomedical engineering. He currently serves as the company’s vice president and chief litigation and investigations counsel.

Stennes’s experience illustrates the success many alumni have found in the legal field after graduating from St. Olaf.

In the last five years alone, Oles have attended nearly all of the top 20 law schools in the country. Owing to a three-way tie for 20th place, 22 schools made the cut, and St. Olaf alumni have been accepted to 20 of them.

For the 2017–18 application cycle, 35 of 37 St. Olaf graduates were accepted by one or more law schools of their choice, and 100 percent of Oles received an acceptance within three years of graduation. This acceptance rate is far above the national average of 74 percent, achieved in part due to a consistently strong performance on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT): The critical thinking and problem-solving skills that students in all majors and disciplines hone at St. Olaf contributes to an exceptionally high outcome on the test. St. Olaf seniors have averaged a 161 on their LSATs over the last 5 years, placing them in the top 20 percent.

St. Olaf students also bring with them a rigorous liberal arts education and desire to serve others that makes them attractive to law schools. “Law schools require no particular major,” says Leslie Moore ’77, director of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career. “Apart from a good GPA and a good LSAT score, law schools are looking for students with strong writing and analytical skills — and for students who have experiences that have tested their resilience and commitment to serving others within complex social, legal, and economic frameworks.”

This commitment is one that Satveer Chaudhary ’91, an immigration lawyer and former Minnesota legislator, made during his time at St. Olaf.

Originally interested in the college as a feeder school to the University of Minnesota Medical School, Chaudhary hoped to channel his passion for helping people into a career as a doctor. But bit by bit, he fell in love with politics, on campus and beyond.

Satveer Chaudhary ’91 was one of the speakers at an Ole Law gathering in the Twin Cities in 2016.

The late political science professor Charles Umbanhowar Sr. played a key role in Chaudhary’s transformation, mentoring and facilitating his burgeoning interest in politics. Chaudhary soon found himself writing for the Manitou Messenger and serving as Political Awareness Committee Coordinator, where he worked on Get Out the Vote initiatives and got hundreds of Oles to vote despite having no polling station on campus.

“It was a political and social playing field for me at St. Olaf, and that’s what encouraged my interest in law,” Chaudhary says.

A yearlong study abroad experience at Oxford University further facilitated his interests, along with additional internships working for Senator Ted Kennedy in Washington D.C. and the 1992 presidential campaign, and he soon headed off to the University of Minnesota law school. Combining his love of law and politics, Chaudhary served in the Minnesota Legislature from 1996 to 2010, first in the Minnesota House of Representatives for four years and then in the Minnesota State Senate for a decade.

Chaudhary went on to open his own law practice as an immigration and criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis. As someone whose parents emigrated from India, says Chaudhary, he understands the complexities of citizenship and the unique situations facing immigrants. His goal is to educate and nurture their new lives in America. “To me,” he says, “this is true counsel.”

St. Olaf prepares students for a vocation, not simply law school. The pride and connection that Oles share even after their graduation is one of the attributes that helps St. Olaf graduates make waves in the professional world. This, paired with an excellent liberal arts curriculum, sends students into a variety of different legal fields and areas. Currently, Ole lawyers work in government offices like the U.S. Court of Appeals and Federal Communications Commission, at Fortune 500 companies such as Accenture in Minneapolis, and in large private firms that include Mayer Brown and RM Partners Law, both based in Chicago.

Moore says that a depth of pre-law programming is one thing that sets St. Olaf apart from other schools. “St. Olaf is one of two liberal arts colleges in the nation that offers a paid internship program enabling students, as undergraduates, to participate in clinics at law schools.”

In October 2019, St. Olaf pre-law students, pictured here at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, visited the St. Paul office of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. They also met with Federal Judge Eric Tostrud ’87 in the nearby Warren E. Burger Federal Building.

Known as the Svoboda Legal Scholars Program, this internship experience is supported by Paul Svoboda ’81, a partner at the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, who wanted to give students real-world legal experience as early as possible in their professional careers. The program enables students to perform intensive legal research and serve in a legal support role to social impact-oriented clinics at the University of Minnesota, Mitchell Hamline, the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the University of St. Thomas Schools of Law. It has also recently included an internship at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

On campus, St. Olaf prepares students for the law profession with courses such as American Constitutional Law and International Law that give them a chance to learn about topics covered in law school before they leave the Hill. In addition, the Piper Center provides students with a variety of resources and programs to help them prepare for law, such as how-to guides and post-grad opportunities, as well as one-on-one career counseling sessions that offer resume revising, interview advice, and guidance on housing and budgeting.

St. Olaf also offers Law and Policy Connections, which gives students ample opportunity to explore the field before they finish their undergraduate degrees. Meeting with alumni in a variety of legal positions, students gain valuable insight into potential career paths while establishing relationships with professionals who have been in their shoes.

Rachel Palermo ’15 attended an early version of the program, called Ole Law, during her time at St. Olaf and continued to make connections throughout her four years on the Hill. One of those connections was Executive Vice President and General Counsel for Holiday Companies Lynn Anderson ’75, who Palermo job shadowed in an externship she created during Interim.

During the externship, Anderson introduced Palermo to a wide variety of lawyers and legal professions. “I spent each day of the month of January with one of 20 different lawyers, ranging from prosecutors to general counsel to a federal court judge — most of whom were Oles,” Palermo says. She even spent a day with Matt Stennes and his legal team at Medtronic. This kind of on-the-job experience helped Palermo discern her own path as she looked toward a career in law.

Another alumna, Amy Gillespie ’88, helped Palermo get her foot in the door at the U.S. Department of Justice. “Amy became a close mentor and friend,” says Palermo, “and over the years, she constantly showed me the value of having a law degree in between exchanging stories of fun memories from St. Olaf. She reminded me of the importance of living a ‘life of worth and service’ in all things that I do.” It was because of Gillespie, who recently passed away, that so many legal professionals in the Department of Justice hold Oles in high esteem and continue to hire them.

Notre Dame law student Rachel Palermo ’15, photographed by Jeremy Hogan/Polaris

After graduating from St. Olaf, Palermo worked at the Democratic National Committee as director of women’s media and then as a senior associate at the communications consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker. Currently, Palermo is a student at the University of Notre Dame Law School, where she is an oralist on the Moot Court Board and will argue an appeal in front of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. She is also the president of the Women’s Legal Forum, serves as a staff editor for a law journal, and works on the legal team for presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. After she finishes her second year of law school, she will return to Faegre Baker Daniels as a summer associate, where she worked last summer and had the chance to meet many Ole lawyers.

The sense of community Palermo has found beyond the Hill will come as no surprise to most Oles. With alumni like these, it’s no wonder that St. Olaf College has such a vibrant pre-law program. Extensive enough to support a variety of paths and dedicated enough to nurture mentorship and career connections, alumni meet pre-law students wherever they are in their journey.

“St. Olaf alumni were the most powerful resources who helped me discern my interests and begin my path toward becoming an attorney,” says Palermo. “Amy and Lynn always taught me to pay it forward, and now that I am entering the legal field, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to help St. Olaf students interested in law. Together, Amy and Lynn opened the first doors for me into the legal profession, and I hope to hold it open for Oles who come after me.”