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Spotlight - Denise L. Drake, recipient of Zelle Hofmann's 2011 Diversity in Law Scholarship

Posted on Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Spotlight - Denise L. Drake, recipient of Zelle Hofmann`s 2011 Diversity in Law Scholarship
Interview conducted by Heather T. Rankie and Qianwei Fu, Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason LLP

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From her beginnings as a Latina growing up in a "tiny" Texas town, to her present studies at Stanford Law School, Denise L. Drake has traveled a path fueled by curiosity and ambition, and informed by diversity. Denise was kind enough to share this path with us during a recent interview and we emerge convinced that she is an extremely worthy recipient of Zelle Hofmann's first Diversity in Law Scholarship.

Denise spent her formative years in small-town Texas, where she attended public school, and spent her summers and holiday breaks with extended family in Mexico. She grew up close to Mexican culture - a culture she believes places high value on family, and especially on extended family. Denise spoke Spanish at home with family, and later in college added Brazilian Portuguese to her linguistic repertoire.

From an early age, Denise had big dreams. As she observed: "The town that I grew up in tended to be very insular. People stayed in that town and it was very unusual for me to want to leave the town, and especially the state, for college. But I think ever since I was little, I felt like I wanted something else. I wanted to see different places. I wanted to not necessarily get away, but wanted to chase something else. Leaving the state for college, especially to go to Harvard, was my dream ever since I was a little kid. It was something I worked for, and once I got in, it was like a dream come true."

While it may seem unusual that Denise chose this path, she views it as a more organic decision. "I think part of the reason I broke from the mold is because I came from one of the few families that spoke a different language at home, that came from a different country," Denise reflected. "Once I got into more diverse environments, it really made me appreciate how much it brings to a learning environment, and how much it brings to a working environment to have all those different viewpoints. Because those people see very different paths, it opens up paths to you that maybe you hadn't even considered."

Once in college, Denise continued to pursue unexpected paths. She ended up on Wall Street interning at Goldman Sachs's emerging markets trading desk, a position that led to a full-time job. "This was definitely not something that I had planned; it was just something that kind of fell into place," Denise observed. While she did not fit the "standard mold" for an investment banker on Wall Street, she excelled and found it rewarding. "An opportunity opened up on the emerging markets desk, which was something that had interested me since I was a kid due to the connection with Latin America I'd had since I was little. It seemed like such an exciting opportunity to work with this region that I'd been connected to my whole life."

While she found her experience on Wall Street invaluable, Denise had always been interested in law. As a child, she enjoyed reasoning through problems and debating with her father. Being multi-lingual has also informed her decision to pursue a legal career: "There are things that you understand about the culture that you can't really understand in the same way when you don't speak the language. Growing up in a bilingual household made me really appreciate how powerful language is. And it made me really appreciate the way that having the right words' and in my case, the right words in the right language - how much that can open doors for you, how powerful that can be. And I think I've seen that translate into an interest in the law, in that law in a lot of ways is about language. And I don't think I would have grown to appreciate that had I not been developing this love for language since I was little."

For Denise, diversity is rooted in varied experiences and how those experiences make each person see available options. "When everyone comes from the same place - not just geographically, but in terms of their experiences - it makes them see the same path. From my own experience of how much diversity enriches the workplace, and how much the lack of diversity weakens an environment, I believe commitment to diversity of experiences is very worthwhile. And I think Zelle Hofmann certainly appreciates that, but not all firms do. Especially with law when a case has so many different angles, so many different ways to approach it, so many things you don't even think about when you first see it. It's having that diversity of experience that can help a team see those different angles from a different place."

Denise is headed back to Stanford in the fall to complete her second year of law school. It is not hard to picture her as a little kid in Boerne, Texas with a desire "to do big things." Not only has she done big things already, but we also look forward to seeing the even bigger things Denise will do in the future.

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