Finding Meaning in Life and the Law

Profiles of three attorneys who have used their law degrees to work in public service or education.

Since its founding, Barnard has prepared countless graduates for legal careers. By the 1970s and 80s, the ranks of women in the legal field were growing steadily. These three women—all of whom graduated in the 1980s— have all recently been recgonized with awards or new positions, allowing them a moment to reflect on their time at Barnard.


First and Foremost a Teacher

Paula Franzese ’80

by Elicia Brown ’90


When they’re considering careers , Paula Franzese tells her students to “go back to when you were really small, and look for signs of what made your heart sing.” In the case of Franzese, a law professor at Seton Hall Law School and a visiting professor at Barnard, the singing was loud and clear one day in the fifth grade.

That day, the principal of Brooklyn’s P.S. 247 asked Franzese to watch the first-graders until a substitute teacher could arrive. An hour later she had covered the phonics lesson, maintained order in the classroom, and found her calling. “When the principal endeavored to relieve me of my duties, I said, ‘But we haven’t gotten to the second lesson,’” she recalls. “At that moment I knew that wherever my educational and professional path took me, I would teach.”

As a lawyer, Franzese has received national acclaim for her expertise in property law and government ethics. She’s served as a litigator at leading New York firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel. She’s advised New Jersey governors and mayors as well as political officials across the country on ethics reform; she joined in the submission of an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. Recently, she launched the Short and Happy Guide series, and wrote A Short and Happy Guide to Being a Law Student and A Short and Happy Guide to Being a College Student .

But it is Franzese’s pedagogical approach that has been singled out as exceptional by, among others, the authors of What the Best Law Teachers Do (Harvard University Press 2013). Her oratory skills play a role. During an hour-long interview, she speaks quickly, but in full, elegant and soaring sentences, often quoting the words of sources, from the Talmud to Horace Mann to James Baldwin. “I am a teacher first and foremost,” she says.

Franzese holds students’ attention with storytelling, guest speakers, and documentaries; she includes experiential learning, and seeks to cultivate “students’ capacity to empathize with one another and with the struggles of the larger world.” The efforts have earned her the Professor of the Year Award 10 times from the Student Bar Association, as well as the title “exemplary teacher” from the American Association of Higher Education. The New Jersey Law Journal has ranked her as a top professor in the state.

Most recently, she was recognized for her long-time volunteer work teaching civics in an afterschool program at the middle school her two children attended. The digital media outlet SheKnows spotlighted Franzese among 20 educators in the country for this work, saying, “Her class is always the most popular life-skills elective at Saint Catherine of Siena School, with a waiting list for admission.” Franzese told SheKnows what she tells the young students: “As lawyers we are uniquely able to use the law to be agents of change, champions of the underdog, voices for those yet to find their own, and givers of hope.”

Challenging moments in Franzese’s Brooklyn childhood awakened her passion for social justice. As the child of Italian immigrants, she witnessed the humiliation of the poor firsthand. Her parents, she says, “worked tirelessly, my dad earning only minimum wage. I experienced the shame that societally we impose on the poor, as if poverty is self imposed and can be cured by the willingness to simply pull oneself up by the bootstraps.” Adds Franzese, “That certainly was not true then, and it’s not the case now.”

The small apartment where she lived with her three siblings and parents was barely habitable, Franzese remembers, and yet the lessons her father passed down within its premises continue to inspire her. “He and my mom stressed the importance and power of education.” A longshoreman, he tried to unionize the workers and was taunted. Her father explained, “you are not what you are called,” and also encouraged his daughters to fight “impediments to true equality.”

As a Barnard student, Franzese continued to learn lessons of feminism and social justice. She appreciated her political science courses, and particularly recalls her first-year seminar, “Resisting Authority,” with professor Peter Juviler, whom she considers a mentor, along with professors Dennis Dalton, Flora Davidson, Richard Pious, and then-president Ellen Futter.

On campus today, Franzese is gratified to find “an even deeper sense of agency on the part of the student body, an extraordinary capacity to not only perceive what’s wrong, but to be part of the solution.”

Franzese is not only a Barnard alumna and teacher; she is also a parent. Her daughter Nina Rosella—who as a baby was outfitted by Franzese’s class at the time with a Barnard onesie, bib, cap, and blanket—is now a first-year. Listening to this writer, lawyer and educator discuss her gratitude toward Barnard, it’s not surprising that Nina chose the school for herself. As her mother notes: “The Talmud reminds us that behind every blade of grass is an angel that whispers, ‘grow, grow.’ Barnard has been that angel for me.”



City Counsel

Georgia Pestana ’84

by Mervyn Kaufman


It was a well-kept secret ; only a few staff members knew beforehand. But, some months back, when First Assistant Corporation Counsel Jeffrey Friedlander announced his retirement from the New York City Law Department, his named successor was Georgia Pestana ’84. With her appointment, Pestana became the first woman and first person of Hispanic heritage to hold the position of number-two attorney in the city’s legal department, which acts as legal representation for the city and its elected officials, as well as for its many agencies.

Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter announced her appointment, saying, “Georgia’s deep familiarity with the Law Department’s structure and staff, as well as the missions of its various divisions, has been invaluable to me. . . . [Her] excellent reputation and solid working relationships with her colleagues . . . at City Hall, and in the counsels’ offices at city agencies enable her to provide advice and other assistance efficiently and effectively.”

In this role, Pestana oversees a department of more than 700 attorneys who handle as many as 70-thousand cases each year.

A 1987 graduate of the New York University law school, Pestana grew up in a two-family home in West New York, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson from Manhattan. Although she had always kept Barnard in focus, as a high school senior she did consider two other schools—NYU and Fordham—but Barnard remained her top choice. Neither of her parents was college educated—her mother earned a GED in her 20s, then advanced to become a bank vice president; her father parlayed a job in an embroidery factory into ownership of a series of businesses. As one of four children, Pestana says, “There was never any question that we were all going to college.”

After receiving her law degree, she immediately joined the New York City Law Department. “I learned how to litigate by doing Article 78 proceedings—challenges to decisions made by any city agency or commissioner,” she explains. “These were cases you learned on because they tended to be so straightforward.

“The first case I actually tried was an employment discrimination case brought by an African American principal who did not get tenure. It was a landmark for me—I won—and maybe it predicted the future because I spent 10 years as chief of a division that litigated discrimination cases.”

The first class-action suit she worked on was brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of mentally ill inmates of Rikers Island; the suit sought improvement in the care provided by the city and the Health and Hospitals Corporation. Recalls Pestana, “It took two years before we ultimately settled the case, with the city taking steps to improve treatment of mentally ill inmates. I was part of a three-attorney team, and we traveled all over the state to take depositions of the inmates after they had been sentenced and transferred to state custody. So I had a tour of the upstate prisons: Attica, Auburn, Elmira.”

In 1998 Pestana took child-care leave for several months. She returned to become managing attorney for the general litigation division and eventually became its deputy chief, a position she held until 2002 when she was named chief of the newly created labor and employment law division, which dealt solely with employment cases. “At any given time, our division would handle a couple of thousand cases, and each attorney would deal with up to 30 cases at once. All the attorneys and support staff would report to me. Although there was a layer of management in between, basically the buck stopped with me. However, ours was a collegial department. We all worked together and helped each other—which I think is very different from the private sector, where lawyers compete to be partners.”

In January 2013, Pestana became the New York City Law Department’s executive assistant corporation counsel for employment and policy litigation, supervising her previous position plus one unit devoted to general litigation and another to administrative law. “Those three divisions handle the most interesting cases—each dealing with city policy and programs,” she explains. “So there’s a lot of involvement in developing responses to legal and social issues, and making sure that the programs we put into place are lawful and respectful of people’s rights.”

Well before her 2015 appointment as first assistant corporation counsel, her days as a litigator had passed. Even so, she has remained engaged in litigation in a supervisory way. “I can be as involved, or not, as much as I like,” she says. “If there are cases of particular interest to me or to the administration, I can pay closer attention to them and meet with the attorneys to discuss strategy and review their papers. I get to give advice on how to proceed and offer what I hope is constructive criticism.”

Recalling her college experience, Pestana says, “One of the things Barnard does is instill a sense of confidence in women, something that has definitely been helpful to me. I don’t hesitate to give my opinion on a topic, and that’s true whether I’m the only woman in the room or one of several. That confidence—that I have a voice that should be heard—came directly from my Barnard experience.”


From Barre to Bar

Marcia Sells ’81

by Merri Rosenberg ’78


It’s not often that the ranks of former ballet dancers and successful lawyers intersect. Then there’s Marcia Sells ’81, recently named dean of students at Harvard Law School, who was a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem before entering Barnard. She’s clear about the ways her early experiences as a dancer continue to inform her professional practice and philosophy.

“It’s about collaboration for me,” says Sells. “It goes back to the ballet. In a ballet company, unless you’re working [together], it doesn’t work. A ballet doesn’t look good if three swans are moving out of step and bumping into others.”

Collaboration and team building are “in my DNA, from what I learned in ballet and what I learned from my parents,” says Sells, who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father ran the largest settlement house in the city and her mother served on many community boards as a volunteer.

That philosophy informed Sells’s professional attitude when, after graduating from Columbia Law School, she began her legal career in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office under former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman.

“As a young lawyer, with 125 files, you need to be nimble and multitask; you also have to write clearly and be sure that you understand the goals of the organization,” Sells says. Similarly, she explains, when she moved on to become a litigator at Chadbourne & Parke, “you can’t work in a high volume, large city firm without collaboration.”

Sells absorbed other lessons from dance as well. She learned leadership, as she was usually chosen to teach steps to the other dancers, and to “figure out how the ballet will work.” Comfortable with improvising, Sells has applied those skills to her legal work. “In a performance art form, you’re always problem-solving,” she says. “My DA experience, where I was working in sex crimes, domestic violence, and child abuse—the reality of trying cases means you have to think on your feet and improvise.”

That talent has certainly helped Sells as she’s used her legal training in a wide variety of fields, ranging from government and private sector, to corporations and higher education. Her legal career has included working as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn DA’s office, serving as a litigation associate for a major law firm, working in human resources for Reuters and the National Basketball Association, and managing community and government relations at the university level. She’s also been a board member at nonprofit organizations Community Impact, based at Columbia, and the Coalition for the Homeless.

Before joining Harvard, Sells served as the associate dean for outreach and education at Columbia School of the Arts and associate vice president for program development and initiatives for the university’s Office of Government and Community Affairs, spearheading negotiations for expansion into the nearby Manhattanville neighborhood. At Harvard, Sells hopes to encourage law students to “think about how they use their experience at HLS to shape their career and life” on campus. “We’re working with students on how to engage with each other professionally, a key focus in legal education today, and on making collaboration more intentional,” she adds.

Concerned with the current debate about diversity and inclusion on campuses, Sells says her focus is on “how you can make people feel connected and have a larger presence in the world. It’s about the changes they want to see…. We want to build those muscles. Leadership development should be informed by ideas about diversity.”

Barnard certainly contributed to Sells’s own leadership abilities. She was the student representative to the College’s board of trustees and president of the Student Government Association. As the student trustee, Sells took advantage of her experience working with then-president Ellen Futter and dean Barbara Schmitter. “They would talk about our goals, and would teach us without our even knowing,” says Sells. “I learned about higher education systems up close from them.”

Barnard remains a major part of her life. Besides being her class fund chair for nearly 30 years, Sells was active as a student in the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters (BOSS), and celebrates holidays like New Year’s Eve with long-time Barnard friends. Barnard is a “power source,” for Sells, who relishes “those relationships with women I could look up to and those I could encourage while in college, and keep encouraging as part of my network.”

Married to a scientist and mother to a stepson (CC ’12) and 14-year-old daughter, Sells is looking forward to having her family join her in Cambridge by the beginning of summer. (They’ve remained in New York for the school year.)

A serious basketball and football fan who laughingly admits she “speaks sports,” Sells played competitive doubles tennis as an undergraduate. She likes to relax by ice-skating, attending ballet performances, and watching movies.

And dancing is still close to her heart. “After learning my job here,” says Sells, she hopes to become part of the dance community in Cambridge and take dance classes. 
It always comes back to the ballet.

Latest IssueSpring 2023