Rachel (Bukberg) Cohn ’03 attended high school at the Spence School and earned a B.S. in Human Development, with a minor in Education, from Cornell University. She spent two years as a legal assistant at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP (“Skadden”) before entering the University of Chicago Law School, and returned to Skadden as an Associate in the Corporate group following graduation. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Greg, and their dog, Angie.
VCS: After graduating from VCS, you went to The Spence School. How do you think your experiences at VCS helped you to identify the right school for you?
RC: VCS pushes you to challenge yourself for all the right reasons—not for grades, but because learning is fun and exciting when you’re taught well. I wanted to attend a high school that would build on that. The approach at Spence was similar: we were rarely simply “told” anything, but rather were encouraged to question facts and reach conclusions on our own.
During my visit to the school, one of the girls mentioned to me that “it was cool to be smart” at Spence, and that the girls really pushed each other to do well without getting too competitive. I’m not sure I would have believed her if I’d heard this as an adult, but at the time her comment really resonated with me. As it turned out, she was absolutely correct.
VCS: What did you find useful or productive about engaging in the high school application process as an 8th Grader?
RC: The high school application process is very similar to the college application process, so I felt prepared when it came time to apply to colleges.
VCS: What was the transition like from VCS to high school?
RC: A lot changed for me, but I felt prepared. First of all, there were not any boys in my classes, and some of my best friends at VCS had been boys. I had to wear a uniform, and I had to ride the subway to school (rather than a quick walk or bus ride). I started receiving letter grades in all of my classes and had to figure out how to mesh with a small group of girls who had been together since Kindergarten and lived in an area of the city I had rarely ventured to before high school. In retrospect, the experience should have been very daunting, but I just took it day by day. It didn’t take too long before I got into my new routine and began to appreciate the importance of the experience for my development.
VCS: From Spence, you went to Cornell University. Were there any internships, work experiences or study abroad programs during high school or college that made a particular impact?
RC: I worked at a small camp in Vermont for a few summers as a teenager. I’d attended the camp earlier in my childhood (ages 8-12) and came back as a staff member. These summers were empowering, grounding and often humbling. The experience of growing up in New York City is unique and wonderful, but I needed my summers away from it to learn the skills you never need to learn while living in an apartment (and away from technology, too, which was crucial as a teenager in the early 2000’s).
VCS: What does a typical work day look like for you?
RC: I spend my days drafting legal documents, conducting research and meeting (or, as is more common these days, hopping on calls) with clients, among other things. On some days I’m able to leave at a typical 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. hour, and on other days I leave much later. Luckily, if I’m at the office late it’s because I’m working on something interesting with other attorneys; ultimately, law is a service industry, so we work hard when our clients need our help and take time off when things are slow.
VCS: What do you love about your job?
RC: I feel challenged by my work every day. Even if I’ve done a similar task before, each situation is unique. I’m expected to think critically and on my feet, and there is still so much to learn at this early stage of my career. Most importantly, none of this occurs in a vacuum; transactional legal practice is all about working with others and obtaining feedback from multiple sources (other attorneys, the client, etc.), so I am constantly learning from others.
VCS: Tell me a little about any volunteering or activism you’re pursuing. Why is that work important to you?
RC: Pro bono work is an extremely important component of my job; Skadden encourages us to become involved in as much pro bono work as possible, and provides us with the resources to do so. I’ve worked on an asylum case, an eviction defense case and have assisted entrepreneurs with the legal work needed to keep their businesses running. I think it is more important now than ever before for lawyers to use their skills and experience to try to make a difference in their communities.
VCS: What are some of your fondest memories from VCS? Does a particular teacher, project, classmate, event, spring to mind?
RC: Food festivals and grabbing pizza with friends at Memphis after school. I also loved the school plays—Charlotte’s Web and Grease spring to mind. Most importantly, my classmates. A bunch of us still do little mini VCS reunions every once in awhile. It’s always great to see each other and find out what everyone has been up to.
VCS: Can you think of a particular moment at VCS that sparked something in you that has led you to what you’re doing now?
RC: I remember a particularly difficult algebra test that I took in the 6th Grade. My teacher, Anna, forced me to think in a way I had never had to before. In the years before I learned algebra, math was so black-and-white; I learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and all word problems could fairly easily be translated into numerical equations. Anna challenged us with new and more complex types of problems that you couldn’t expect to know the answer to just because you knew the rules. Answering these types of questions always took a little thinking outside the box (and sometimes, a lot of thinking outside the box). I remember that my heart started racing when I saw one problem in particular, because after my initial read I recognized that I did not have any idea how to even begin to solve it. Rather than become too discouraged, however, I took Anna’s advice and stepped away from my test for a minute or two. I walked around, took deep breaths, and tried to think about other things. When I got back to my seat, I re-read the question and started to sketch out some ideas. I didn’t get the answer exactly right, but I received some credit for getting a good portion of the way there (and I ended up doing just fine on the test). This experience taught me that I couldn’t always expect to do everything perfectly, but that my willingness to accept a challenge, to look at the bigger picture and to do my best were just as important. I rarely use algebra in my current profession, but these principles still apply to my work on a daily basis. Furthermore, the experience made it clear that I would be most happy if I could find a challenging profession that would require me to keep learning and growing even in the later years of my career.
VCS: What is something about VCS that you hope will never change?
RC: The administrators and teachers at VCS put an incredible amount of time and energy into selecting classes. I remember awaiting my class assignment at the end of each summer with excitement, and only in hindsight can I truly appreciate how much thought went into the decision. Each year, I was placed with a teacher and class of students that the school thought would best foster my intellectual and social development. This went beyond a simple look at teaching styles; rather, the school had clearly considered how the teacher and students would collectively impact my development, and in turn what I would bring to the class. This is truly unique and crucial to the VCS experience.
VCS: In one sentence, what would you say your VCS education did for you?
RC: VCS taught me to think for myself, to ask difficult questions and most importantly to understand my role as a member of a community.