St. Olaf Magazine | Winter 2020

Lawyer in Training

Michaela Bolden ’16 is working toward a career practicing transactional law in her dream city of New York.
Michaela Bolden ’16, photographed at Columbia University Law School in NYC by Michael Sofronski

Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, Michaela Bolden ’16 knew she wanted to someday live in New York City, and now, as a second-year graduate student at Columbia Law School, she’s right where she wants to be.

“I love seeing all the people doing different things, always grinding, always moving. I love walking down the street and hearing ten different languages being spoken. New York just has a great multicultural feel to it,” says Bolden.

This summer she’ll be clerking at Jones Day, and she hopes that the firm will hire her to work in capital markets or private equity after she’s earned her J.D. degree.

“I’m interested in transactional law because I want to help companies raise the capital they need to meet their goals,” she says. “Corporations get a bad rap, but they’re not all bad. I’d like to help put a human face to how things get done, to be the person raising awareness while writing the contracts.”

Bolden says that experiences throughout her life have shaped her and guided her to a coveted spot at one of the nation’s top law schools.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I entered college,” she says. “I chose St. Olaf because it offered many options to explore, plus the resources and support I needed to do so.” She earned a B.A. in economics and environmental studies, was a standout thrower on the women’s track and field team, and studied abroad in Japan.

Bolden also had a fledgling interest in the law, and so to test the waters, she spent a summer as a Svoboda Legal Scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law. (The Svoboda Program is offered through the Piper Center for Vocation and Career and is supported by the generosity of Paul Svoboda ’81.) Bolden worked in the university’s Human Rights and Immigration Law Clinic, assisting with asylum petitions by helping to prepare documentation on the general conditions and state of human rights in the origin countries of asylum seekers.

But that experience didn’t quite convince Bolden she was destined for law school. “I liked the intellectual and problem-solving aspect of the work, but I wasn’t sold on immigration law. I wasn’t ready to [commit to] law school without exploring a bit more,” she says.

The one thing she did know? New York was calling. Fred Reinke ’83, the father of a St. Olaf friend, worked at Mayer Brown and alerted Bolden to a paralegal opening at the firm the summer after her graduation. She applied, got the job, and packed her bags. During her two years at the firm, Bolden fell in love with transactional law as an assistant for an international insurance group, working on business development with attorneys in the areas of insurance, finance, and mergers and acquisitions.

“I got an insider look at a large law firm and I loved it,” Bolden says. “I realized that there’s a whole other side to law beyond litigation. With my economics background, I felt better equipped to work in business law.”

Bolden’s coworkers at Mayer Brown encouraged her to apply to law school, and after she began at Columbia, they provided her with advice gleaned from their own law school experiences.

“Law school is a hyper-pressurized environment,” she says. “They advised me to focus my energy on myself and not my classmates, to trust my abilities, and to keep my mental health in check.”

Bolden, who says one of her role models is Michelle Obama, guards against what the former first lady calls “imposter syndrome” by reminding herself that she is exactly where she should be.

Columbia fills its cohorts with people from all walks of life and every country in the world, Bolden says, and she knows that her story is just one of many deserving ones. “We’re all here, striving to do our best, and we should be confident in that.”

Bolden’s time at Columbia has given her a more informed understanding of the world. “I’m also more open to other people’s perspectives and experiences,” she says. She is a staff editor of the Columbia Journal of Race and Law, which promotes scholarship around racial and ethnic justice. She is currently writing a piece that argues the need for a statute or regulation that forces administrative agencies to consider the impact that their decisions — such as where to locate a hazardous waste facility — will have on communities of color.

Bolden also has chaired Columbia’s Paul Robeson Conference and Gala, which is hosted by the Black Law Students Association and features discussions on a range of legal issues. When her schedule allows, she does pro bono legal work for Catholic Charities, interviewing immigrants who are applying for asylum so that attorneys will be better prepared to argue their cases in court. It’s similar to what she did as a Svoboda Legal Scholar at St. Olaf.

“I do a lot of listening to people’s stories, and that has opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t know about immigration law,” she says. “I now realize that the law impacts our day-to-day lives more than we know, and that the law also has a human aspect to it at every level — it’s not black and white, and often the answer to a legal question is ‘It depends.’ ”

Bolden hopes that a career in transactional law will give her the time and resources she needs to continue doing pro bono work. Eventually, she’d like to assist sustainable development funds in raising capital for renewable energy innovation — a connection that harkens back to her environmental studies major at St. Olaf.

“St. Olaf helped me grow and pushed me out of my comfort zones,” Bolden says. “I’m grateful for the support I received while I was there. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”