Getting to know the CDO: An Interview with Vinny Versagli, ND 2005

By now, hopefully you have had the chance to read at least one of my lawyer stories series of blog posts where I interview Notre Dame lawyers and ask them questions about their career path, what their day to day life is like, and advice they have for law students. This blog post is another iteration of my lawyer stories series but it is the very first in my series of interviews with your very own Notre Dame Law School Career Development Office staff.

Each counselor in the CDO has a different background, career path, life experience, and of course, personality. NDLS students are always welcome to meet with any counselor you wish and so I thought it would be helpful to give you some deeper personal insight into each of the counselors in our office. Additionally, because all of us counselors in the CDO are lawyers, these blog posts will be useful in the same way other lawyer stories blog posts are helpful; by providing insight into a specific career path within the law and showing you how a particular lawyer’s career path has progressed.

With no further ado, here is my interview with NDLS’s very own Director of Career Development, Vinny Versagli:

KMB: Tell me about your time at Notre Dame as an undergrad.

VV: I grew up a huge Notre Dame football fan and always wanted to go to school here, so having the chance to do that was a dream come true. I lived in Carroll Hall all four years and was a proud Vermin.  I was very involved in dorm life. I have so many terrific memories of my time as a student here and was fortunate to make many lifelong friends. But some of my favorite memories are spending home football Saturdays tailgating with my grandfather. He was the reason my brother and I grew up loving Notre Dame, and the reason we both went to school here. His father raised him as a Notre Dame football fan, and he used to tell my brother and I about his father taking him to watch practice when Knute Rockne was the coach. My grandfather went to every home game for most of his adult life, and it was great to share that experience with him while I was in school.  There’s a picture of me with him and my grandmother at a tailgate sitting on the shelf in my office.

KMB: Tell me about law school. What made you want to attend law school and did you know what you wanted to do when you got there?

[Note: Vinny attended Villanova University School of Law, which is located in the Philadelphia area. Yes, he is ecstatic that the Eagles won the Super Bowl.]

VV: It’s funny because I always said I had no interest in being a lawyer. I was a finance and economics major in college and I started to look around at possible career options. I was interested in business and really liked the finance classes I had been taking throughout college but most of the jobs I saw people getting — like investment banking — didn’t interest me so I started to wonder if there was something else beyond the traditional finance and econcareer paths. Around my junior year, I took an M&A class and a business law class and got interested in law. I got the idea to pursue a career as a transactional lawyer and decided to attend law school.

KMB: Why did you decide on Villanova for law school?

VV: Because Notre Dame didn’t admit me! Well, that’s only part of the story. Villanova was a very good fit for my career goals. I grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, and my goal was to get a job with a firm in Wilmington or Philadelphia. My uncle, who was and still is a lawyer in Skadden’s Wilmington office, told me that unless I was going to a top 25 law school I would be best served to go to one of the local schools like Villanova or Temple. He explained that Wilmington and Philadelphia were full of alumni from the local schools and that the firms in both cities recruited heavily from them.  If I could do well academically, I would have many opportunities to interview.  He was right, and Villanova ended up being an outstanding choice for me.

KMB: How was your law school experience? I hear frequently from colleagues and friends who practice transactional law that law school is more litigation focused and doesn’t prepare them as much for a transactional law career. Was that your experience?

VV: Yes, definitely. I found law school to be heavily focused on litigation. I didn’t really have transactional experiences with my law school courses. I took business focused courses, which taught the substantive law, but they did not teach what it was like to practice as a transactional lawyer. I didn’t get a truly good sense of that until I started working as an associate.

KMB: What did you do your 1L summer?

VV: I worked for a bankruptcy judge in Delaware, who was a Villanova law graduate. The goal for my 1L summer job was to try to get something related to business, which is typically a bit harder to find as a 1L.  Working for the judge was a great experience. I left knowing that I did not want to practice bankruptcy law but I got great writing experience and was able to use an opinion I drafted as a writing sample for my law firm applications. It was also rewarding to sit in on proceedings for chapter 11 cases and to find that I understand the basics of what was happening from my business background. Working closely with the judge’s clerk was the most rewarding part of the experience. I talked to him every day and he served as a reference for me when I was applying for the position in Notre Dame’s CDO.

As a side note on bankruptcy law, it is a practice area that doesn’t traditionally draw a great deal of attention from law students but it is a great practice area to build a career. It’s an interesting blend of litigation and transactional work, and bankruptcy matters often touch a lot of different areas of the law. In some ways, you are a legal jack-of-all trades.

KMB: What did you do your 2L summer and how did you land that job?

VV: My 2L summer, I worked as a summer associate at Richards, Layton & Finger (RLF) in Delaware, which luckily for me was my first choice firm. I interviewed with them and many other area firms through OCI. It was pre-recession then, so the legal economy was doing very well and opportunities were more plentiful — although OCI at Villanova was much more regional with mostly Philadelphia area employers participating.

KMB: How was your summer associate experience?

VV: I enjoyed it. There were 15 summer associates total, and we each had to spend half the summer in a litigation department and the other half in a transactional department. Even though I planned to do transactional work, it was good to experience both over the summer. RLF is a great firm and if I was going to practice, I wouldn’t practice anywhere else. On the litigation side, I mostly did research and wrote memos or sections of briefs. I don’t like research and writing so that experience drove me even more clearly toward transactional practice. On the transactional side, I did a variety of things, including reviewing companies’ organizational documents and making basic revisions to opinions. Even then, I still did not have a good view of what transactional practice really looked like until I started as a first-year associate.

KMB: Tell me about your experience as an associate practicing corporate law at RLF.

VV: RLF is a great firm and if I was going to keep practicing, I wouldn’t have practiced anywhere else. I was at the firm for 3 1/2 years (from 2008-2012) and practiced in the General Transactions group in their Business Department. When you first start as a transactional associate, it is definitely a steep learning curve. The first six months, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. In the early days, I would be the associate on the phone negotiating comments to our opinions and would find I didn’t know all of the answers. That was hard at first because I felt like I should, but the reality is that it was perfectly OK. You don’t walk in the door knowing how to practice.  You have to learn it. It is OK to say “I need to talk to the partner and get back to you.”

But it is learnable. Transactional practice has a rhythm to it and tends to repeat itself. There are different types of deals so as a first-year associate, I was learning what to do for each transaction and what our role at RLF was. Once you get it, you get it. Over time, I realized that even though I was still learning the practice the people I was talking to on the phone knew less than I did about the law covered in our opinions. I will say that having a background in finance helped smooth out my learning curve a bit because I could understand the transactions from a business perspective. I found that some of my fellow first-years without a business background had more trouble with that.

KMB: Can you tell me more about RLF as a firm? What kind of work does RLF specialize in?

VV:  In Delaware, there is a lot of corporate work generally. RLF is the biggest firm in Delaware and the group I was in specializes in providing opinions on various aspects of Delaware law in connection with large corporate financings. In those deals, elements of Delaware law are almost always implicated, and the parties to the transaction require opinions from Delaware counsel. RLF has expertise in providing those opinions, and the firms running the deals — predominately large law firms in New York — retain RLF as Delaware counsel for the companies they are representing. I often worked on deals run by firms like Simpson Thacher, Debevoise, Cravath, Davis Polk, Wachtell Lipton, etc.

KMB: What was your daily life like at RLF?

VV: I did almost entirely opinion work for large financing transactions –basically deals where companies are raising money to fund their operations by selling notes to institutional investors or entering into large credit facilities with a lender or group of lenders. The deals require the company and often many of its subsidiaries to enter into a series of transaction documents. When some of the companies in the corporate structure are Delaware entities — and some of them almost always are — the parties want certain opinions from Delaware counsel at closing. At first, I did mostly UCC work. Then as I got further into my career, I did work with another partner and started giving corporate and alternative entity opinions as well.

My daily work involved reviewing and commenting on transaction documents and drafting and negotiating opinions. Deals close and you move on to the next one. You might have days where you are working on one deal for the entire day and days where you work on 6-7 deals in a given day. Some transactions move fast and some last months.

KMB: What were your hours like when you worked at the firm?

VV: My hours varied. I would typically get into the office around 9 and in a normal day, I would leave at about 7 or 8. When I was busier, I would leave later, at around 9 or 10. In transactional practice, the work volume is fairly predictable. You know that the end of each quarter will be very busy, and year-end is always the busiest. In December, there was often a week or two when I would not leave until midnight or 1 most nights. Overall though I was lucky with my practice in that I did not have to do a lot of non-billable work and I didn’t work a lot on weekends. During busy times, I could easily bill 60-70 hours just by working Monday-Friday. A lot of other practices have a lot of non-billable time where you are in the office but you’re not able to bill your time to a client.

KMB: What made you decide to leave the firm to pursue career counseling? Was it a gradual realization or sudden?

VV: I gradually realized that firm life wasn’t what I wanted. I loved the people at RLF and think it is a great firm but you do sacrifice a degree of your personal life for the work. If you really love the work, that sacrifice is worth it but for me, it wasn’t. I wanted to work with people. I reflected on my life and recalled how much I loved teaching. I taught at a nature center in undergrad and coached 7th and 8th grade football while I was in law school and those were some of my best experiences. I found that while teaching and coaching, I never thought about the time spent there or wondered when I was going to leave and go home. That wasn’t true for me when practicing law.

You have to like what you do. No matter what you do, you will spend more time at the office than you will at home so it is important to really like it.

In November or December of 2011, I committed to leaving law practice and things moved quickly. A position opened up at Notre Dame and I applied.

KMB: It sounds like you got your job here at Notre Dame in a pretty traditional way then? You didn’t know someone or network to get it?

VV: Yes, that’s basically correct, but I did tap my personal network to learn more about the position before applying. I had, and still have, several friends from undergrad who work at Notre Dame. One of them connected me with someone in our Admissions Office (he’s no longer here), and we talked for a good 30 or 40 minutes about the Career Development Office and the position I was interested in applying for. Afterwards, I sent in my application through the University’s online job posting and was selected for an interview. I don’t know whether he spoke with anyone in the office about our conversation, but it definitely helped me solidify my interest in the position and prepare for my interviews.

My first interview was a phone screener with HR and afterwards I decided that if I got invited for a second interview I was going to make sure it was in person. My firm was always closed for MLK day and I knew from my time as an undergrad at Notre Dame that Notre Dame did not have MLK day off. So I planned a trip to South Bend to visit friends that weekend and was really hoping to use it to interview. Indeed, I got invited to do another phone interview and responded that I would be in town on MLK day and happy to interview in person. They brought me in for an in-person interview and the rest is history.

KMB: How do you like working at Notre Dame?

VV: Coming out here was the best decision of my life. I love my job and working with students. Never once have I said to myself on a Sunday “here we go again.” I am happy to go to work.

KMB: Can we talk about paying back loans? You left a lucrative career at a firm so how is paying back loans on a non big firm salary going?

VV: It’s been a bit more challenging at times, but I am still paying them all back on schedule. We had a baby a year and a half ago and just bought a house this past summer. We go on trips now and then and do fun things. You do what you can with what you have. So paying back loans is going just fine.

KMB: What is your approach to career counseling? 

VV: It starts with listening and working to understand what a student’s goals are. Every student is different, and I always try to meet them where they’re at. Some have a great sense of what they want to do. Others aren’t so sure.  Regardless, I work with them to try and identify an end goal, something we can start with and work backwards from to develop the best path forward.

I mentioned before that I prior to starting my position here at Notre Dame, I enjoyed coaching, and I view my current role very much in that light. A good coach helps his or her players develop their natural abilities and tries to put them in the best position to be successful. That’s what I try to do with the students I work with. More than anything, I want all of them to achieve a career of their choosing that they enjoy.

KMB: What are your hobbies?

VV: I’m a sports junkie and have been most of my life. I grew up following Notre Dame football and all of the Philadelphia sports teams, and I’m probably as at home at a tailgate as I am anywhere. Aside from that, I really enjoy cooking, playing golf, and spending time with my family and friends, which often involves some combination of the other things I mentioned.

KMB: When is the last time you took a week-long vacation? Did you take one while you were in law practice?

VV: The last time I took a week-long vacation was this past summer. My brother-in-law got married in late July, and my wife, daughter, and I took the full week before to visit my wife’s family. I’m not sure I ever took a full week-long vacation in practice. That being said, I usually used the bulk of my vacation days each year.  I just tended to take long weekends rather week-long trips.

KMB: What is the best live show you have ever seen?

VV: Believe it or not, I’ve only seen two, so I don’t have much to choose from. They were both great though. When I was a freshman at Notre Dame, U2 played here on campus at the Joyce Center during their Elevation tour. One of my roommates waited in line and got us floor tickets. The show was amazing. I also saw Jimmy Buffett live in Camden, NJ when I was a summer associate at RLF. The firm took us all to the concert and threw a big tailgate beforehand. It was a great show and easily the highlight of the summer.

You are more than welcome to schedule an appointment with Vinny to talk about anything under the sun but if you to want to learn more about corporate law careers, Richards Layton & Finger, or practicing in Philadelphia, Vinny is happy to chat about those things too.

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