Alumnus balances public and private sectors of law

By: Catherine Gorey,  A&S Communications
Sat, 02/23/2019

Joshua Berman ‘91 reclines in his chair and addresses the 10 students clustered around a table in a classroom overlooking the Arts Quad. “The charm of a setting like this is there is no question too small or too big, anything you want to ask. I am so excited to be here so you can ask what you want.”

Berman, a pre-med student turned government major and lawyer, visited campus Feb. 8 for a career conversation hosted by Arts & Sciences Career Development. He started off his discussion by emphasizing the importance of taking classes that spark your interest, instead of limiting yourself to a specific career path.

“I began to fall into courses that I began to enjoy: I took government 181, international relations, I took some history courses and I realized what I really liked was the critical thinking and writing. I didn’t have a pre-law kind of curriculum when I was here, I just took courses that I loved and I was passionate about.”

The most influential classes for Berman weren’t those that a typical law student would fit into their curriculum: “The Psychology of Television” and “Literature Between the Wars.”

“I took theater and public speaking while I was (at Cornell) and I liked those, I took acting classes because I liked doing it. My first speech for public speaking was on the history of Cornell hockey, which I thought was just the coolest thing.”

These classes enabled Berman to get come out of his shell and learn to enjoy actively participating and engaging with fellow students and professors. “When I came to Cornell, I certainly wasn’t any great intellect. I was absolutely overwhelmed by my classmates. I was scared to open my mouth. I hid in the back and was super happy to just take notes and be invisible. It wasn’t until (I took) these other weird and different classes that for the first time I was able to say, ‘Wait, I want to say something about Gatsby,’ and I started talking.”

With his newfound passion in public speaking and evidence-based debates, he went on to the University of Michigan law school, focusing on trial work and prosecuting cases. With that experience, Berman began a career path that has weaved in and out of public and private sectors of law.

“I’ve been super super blessed by the diversity of the work I’ve been able to do,” Berman said, ticking off an impressive laundry list of trials he’s taken part in. “I’ve represented individuals in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case, I prosecuted Bin Laden before 9/11 in 1998 and 1999, I worked on a spy case, I represented pharmaceutical companies accused of bribing federal officials across the world,” he said. “I’ve worked with sports team under investigation for illegal scouting practices in the Domincan Republic… I could go on and on.”

Berman’s experiences have given him a respect for the value of practicing law in both fields. “I think public service is vital. It has given me opportunities to try cases which are harder to find in the private sector,” Berman said. “I think there’s a balance, but to go into public service and be a trial lawyer to stand in a courtroom and say ‘My name is Joshua Berman and I represent the United States of America,’ it’s really amazing.”

Currently, Berman works as a senior partner at Clifford Chance. In this role, he represents and provides counsel to corporate clients, boards of directors and individuals in government and internal investigations, national security matters, white collar criminal defense, Congressional investigations, civil litigation, SEC enforcement actions and cyber-security matters. Currently he represents a number of individuals in the ongoing Special Counsel Investigation led by Robert Mueller, as well as related investigations.

Berman also represents pharmaceutical senior executives accused of bribing foreign Ministry of Health officials to get their drugs on the list of government-approved treatments. “So that’s kind of dirty, right?” Berman jokes. “On the other hand, my client would say that if we don’t do that, then we’re not on the list and the children who can’t get the medicine will die.”

Berman  remains dedicated to pro-bono work and public service. “I balance the ethical moral quandary (of being in private practice) by doing a lot of pro-bono work. I represent a lot of clients that couldn't afford lawyers otherwise: landlord, child custody cases, criminal defenses,” he said, recounting a recent family trip to a Texas border town where he helped provide assistance to immigrants at a Catholic Charities relief center.

Ending his talk with advice for undergraduates wanting to follow a similar path, Berman stressed the importance of following your own individual passions — whether that be by taking classes of interest, taking a chance on job applications or reaching out to others on LinkedIn.  

“I can’t overestimate the importance of this,” he said. “ Take advantage of every opportunity you have here. Anything you take can change the way you think about problems.You learn things about yourself as you go through things. That combination of feasibility and going for what you want. That’s the key.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

 Joshua Berman talking student