We chatted with founding alumni Denise Mamaliger '09 about life after Sierra Canyon, the challenges of law school and passing the Bar Exam, and starting her Family Law career.
Tell us why you chose to pursue a career in law.
At first, being a lawyer started off as a long running joke in my family. Since I was a kid I loved debating with my parents and mediating between my friends. I was great at calming any situation and finding a resolution that satisfied everyone. I was also very good at getting what I wanted out of my parents with my clever arguments. So since I could remember, my parents called me a lawyer. However, I didn’t actually consider pursuing a career in law until my second year in college.
When I was a senior applying for colleges and considering which major to go into, I knew I was good at two things: advocating and finances. I was always responsible with my allowance and birthday money, saving as much as I could and being reasonable in my spending. So I started off as a business economic major. But, I hated it. It was dull, and I just could not understand the concepts. In my second year at college, I decided to take an intro to law class – and the rest was history as they say. I loved the class, it came naturally to me, and so I switched to political science as my major and never looked back.
I can’t say I chose to pursue a career in law because I had a deep burning desire to help others or because it is what everyone in my family before me did. In fact, I’m the first to stray away from the medical world. I chose to pursue a career in law because I liked the classes I took in college. I was good at it, and enjoyed it.
Plus --- in truth, I do actually have a deep burning desire to help others.
Which area of law are you working in and/or hoping to work in?
I’ve always been told that I’m a great listener and give good advice; so going into Family Law was the natural choice for me. As a Family Law attorney, you’re both an attorney and a therapist in a way. So while I was in law school, I devoted my energy into learning as much as I could about Family Law. I took all the Family Law courses and my summer positions and internships were always in Family Law.
However, there is still a part of me that wants to try something new and completely different, especially while I’m still so new to the profession. So while I’m currently working in the area of Family Law, I always keep my eyes and ears open for an opportunity that may sound interesting. Since I still do enjoy working with finances (just not as a business economics major), I particularly think I would enjoy working in banking or corporate law.
How was your experience as an undergrad and law school student? Mention the schools you attended.
I attended UCI as an undergrad and Southwestern Law School afterwards, and had a great experience at both. Everyone always tell you to enjoy college, because it will be the best time of your life. And I found that to be true. I loved college.
In college I was able to enjoy many new experiences. I took classes that sounded interesting (such as Russian Folk & Fairy Tales), met some of my lifelong friends, and it was the first time that I had to learn to be an “adult.” (I put adult in quotes because to this day I don’t see myself as one.) I had to learn to juggle my academic life and social life, without letting the other suffer. It was the first time I was given true freedom, where I could go out wherever I wanted and whenever I wanted. It was up to me to make the decisions that would shape the next chapter in my life, without the trusting, but still watchful eyes of my parents. I learned from my mistakes and matured through my successes.
Then came law school, which was a whole different experience, but one I still enjoyed. Now, I wasn’t taking classes for the fun of it, or because I had to in order to fulfill my requirements to obtain my undergrad degree. The classes I took were to help and prepare me for my career. I took everything much more seriously. The first year was the hardest. It was a whole different style of learning, writing and understanding. But, it was also the most fulfilling. You start taking yourself more seriously, and you develop relationships different than those in high school and undergrad. In law school all my friends had the same goal in life, which is to become a lawyer – so we all understood each other.
If I could, I would love to go back and have those experiences again.
What about your Sierra Canyon years and experience. How did they impact you?
At Sierra Canyon I had a very unique and special experience. I was part of the founding class, and we really were like a family. I didn’t join a high school that had all it’s traditions already implanted in history, but instead I helped start some traditions. Everything was new, not just for me, but for my classmates and my teachers. Creating history impacts you in a way that not many get the joy of experiencing. It gave me the courage to try new things and try the unknown because we had no choice but to do just that.
Academically, as a high school student you don’t really consider or understand what a “college-prep” high school really means. When I started college though, I understood. Sierra Canyon really helped prepare me and give me the discipline I needed to be successful in college. Without sounding smug, I noticed that it was much easier for me to obtain a B and even an A in some classes than some of my other friends who had to work much harder for those grades. In all honesty, I contribute my success in college, in a huge part, to Sierra Canyon.
Any specific SC experiences, classes, individuals or teachers that impacted your life?
As mentioned above, being part of the founding class impacted my life immensely. I was part of a small and strong-knit community, which gave me a sense of belonging. The things and decisions I made, those my classmates made and those of the faculty and administration helped pave the way for future generations. It made you feel important, and it’s that feeling I never forgot. You are important, and I think that is really important to remember.
Do you keep in touch with SC classmates and is that important to you?
Yes! I made some of my best friends at SC. The friends I made at SC will always be closest to my heart because they were there the longest and I can truly say, they know it ALL. They knew me at all stages of my life and if they stuck by me while I was transitioning from being a child to a teenager and now to an “adult”, then they each deserve a medal.
What advice would you give to current SC students, especially seniors?
I’d tell them they are not alone. If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, or what major to choose from, it’s ok – no one does. I still don’t know. I was always afraid of this, because I felt as if my peers all had a plan and something to move towards too, and I was secretly just “faking it until I made it.” But in reality, everyone is doing the same. Don’t be afraid of the unknown and try new things, and most importantly don’t forget to ask if you need help. You don’t have to handle anything on your own. Talk to as many people as you can, learn from their experiences, learn from their mistakes – and don’t forget to share yours as well.
Don’t waste the opportunities in front of you. Be responsible, take responsibility for your decisions and actions, grow-up while always staying young at heart and have fun.