Christina Tsesmelis lives a lawyer’s dream. At the age of 29 she has won some very important cases and has worked in both the private and public sectors. While working as a clerk with Judge Eaton, she drafted a landmark opinion resolving a United States – Canada $20 billion trade dispute pending before NAFTA and the WTO. Today she works for the international law firm of Mayer Brown LLP. She embraces her Greek roots, speaks Greek with a sweet accent and when somebody enters her office he/she will notice the framed picture of Kokkari in Samos on her desk. Her grandfather originates from the island.
Although she is young, Christina is also a generous philanthropist and involved in political and social events. Currently she is organizing with the Greek America foundation a forum called the Women’s Forum with guest speaker Ariana Huffington on October 17th in New York. She is a committee member of the Hellenic Times Scholarship Fund and the Hellenic Lawyers Association of New York, where she works to raise scholarship money to assist Greek-American law students in funding their legal educations. We met Christina at her office in Manhattan and we realized that this young lady has an even brighter future, especially because she did not answer negatively in our question if she would like to run for public office.
For some people it is a dream to be a lawyer in Manhattan? Was this your dream?
It was, and I’m fortunate enough that it still is. I started my career as a federal judicial law clerk for the Honorable Richard K. Eaton. Working for a federal judge in Manhattan right out of law school was almost a surreal experience. I learned a tremendous amount about the law, the judicial system and about being a lawyer from both Judge Eaton and the Honorable Nicholas Tsoucalas for whom I later clerked. After my clerkships, I joined the litigation department of Mayer Brown LLP – an international law firm with over 1,800 lawyers. I focus on complex commercial litigation and my cases have been both challenging and interesting.
What is an attorney’s reality in NYC? Please describe your day.
No day is the same. On any given day I have multiple cases going on, and I frequently shift from one matter to another. A typical day could include arguing in court or negotiating a settlement. Many days are spent drafting briefs, motions and other legal papers. The private practice of law is a client-services business so every day also involves speaking with clients.
What has been the case that has affected you most as a lawyer?
There are two and each has affected me differently. One was my first trial. Seeing a case through from its inception, arguing motions, discovery, to trial was one of the best experiences I’ve had as an attorney. During the trial and for the weeks immediately before it, I slept no more than a few hours a night but didn’t mind at all. Strategizing, prepping witnesses, creating exhibits, writing opening and closing statements, and being in court was a demanding but amazing experience. Winning the trial was the icing on the cake. On a different level, working with pro bono clients has been both humbling and rewarding. Working with people displaced by the earthquake in Haiti has affected me not only as a lawyer, but as a person. The firm is also involved in a Veteran’s Assistance Program and working with veterans has been an honor – their stories are unbelievable and their bravery and selflessness is awe-inspiring.
You helped draft “a landmark opinion resolving a United States –Canada $20 billion trade dispute” at a very young age. Was that the best moment in your career?
I had the great opportunity to assist a panel of three Judges at the United States Court of International Trade decide a long-standing trade dispute between the United States and Canada. This was one of the first cases I worked on, and I learned so much from hearing lawyers at the top of their field arguing, reviewing the briefs, and discussing the case with the Judges and other law clerks. Participating in how legal decisions are made was an invaluable experience.
You are heavily involved in the community, but have an extremely demanding job. What organizations are you involved with and which projects are most important to you?
I love my job, and it is definitely demanding, but community work is also very important. I can’t say that one organization is more important than the other as they are all essential. The Greek America Foundation is a great cause, as its mission is to promote and preserve Hellenism. I was fortunate enough to be voted one of GAF’s 40 Under 40 this year, and will serve as the Chairperson for Sponsorship for the 2011 GABBY Awards. The 2011 awards are being held on Ellis Island and we hope to raise money to fund an endowment to send college students to study abroad in Greece. I was recently asked to join the Board of Directors for the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce – Young Professionals and am very excited about the fantastic work HACC-YP has been doing. I am also on the Gala Committees of the Hellenic Lawyer’s Association of New York and the Hellenic Times Scholarship Funds – both of which hold annual events to help finance the educations of Greek-American students. In addition to these causes, I volunteer with the Doe Fund, am a member of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, and am involved with the Museum of the City of New York Young Member’s Circle.
You are hosting the Greek America Foundation’s first Women’s Forum Brunch featuring Arianna Huffington. Please tell me more about the event and how you came up with this idea.
The idea came to me earlier this summer. As I mentioned, I am involved with the Greek America Foundation, and have witnessed first-hand the new connections forged and relationships made at GAF events. It is really incredible how many successful and well-rounded Greeks and Greek-Americans there are in this country. I’ve always felt that people should support each other – I’m certain that we can grow stronger this way. I wanted a network where women could come together, meet and learn from each other, and be one another’s champions. Through my involvement with the GAF, Greg Pappas and I created the GAF Women’s Forum. The inaugural event is a brunch on October 17th at Battery Gardens in New York City. We have the pleasure of having Arianna Huffington speak, and will have several notable women in attendance. My co-hosts and I are very excited about the event and hope that it will bring together women from NY and beyond.
You are a very powerful woman, are people intimidated by you?
I’ve never thought of myself as powerful or not, but thank you for the kind words. My hope is that when people meet me, I’m disarming rather than intimidating.
How prominent is your Greek heritage in your life?
Greek heritage is a large part of my life, and for that, I credit my parents, Nicholas and Maria Tsesmelis. I speak Greek, and visit Greece every summer. Thanks to my mom and yiayiades, I’ve also learned to cook Greek dishes recently. Most importantly, I’ve watched my family carry on Greek traditions – religious and cultural – and plan to continue them when I have my own family.
Where do you see yourself five years from now? What are your goals? Public office?
In five years I would hope to be a partner at my law firm, and have a family. My goals are to further expand my understanding of the law, grow my practice, and continue my involvement with the community. As for public office, right now, I am supporting my friends and colleagues who are running and wish them the best.