John DeRosa, Who Led Law School Placement to Great Heights During Two Challenging Decades, Is Retiring

by Linda Brandt Meyers

John DeRosa, who has championed the Law School’s career services initiatives since 2001, is retiring. His leadership—first as assistant dean, then associate dean for career services and employee relations—has led to stellar placement results during challenging times. 

Cornell Law placed third among Law.Com’s “top ten go-to law schools for getting a Biglaw Job in 2022” and fifth in Above the Law’s 2021 list of top law schools for top law firm jobs.

“Cornell Law School has a career placement rate that is the envy of the T14—the top fourteen law schools in the country,” says Jens David Ohlin, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law at the Law School. “While there are many people who are responsible for that success,” says Ohlin, “John DeRosa was an integral part of that collective. Today, there are lawyers across the country and the world who all owe a great debt to John’s efforts. He ensured that generations of Cornellians were launched into careers as ‘lawyers in the best sense.’ His contributions will endure through the careers of others, for decades to come.”

Former Law School Dean Eduardo Peñalver, currently president of Seattle University, comments: “During Dean DeRosa’s remarkably successful tenure, the Law School consistently punched above its weight in law firm job placement. Under his leadership, Cornell regularly ranked among the top five or ten law schools in Law.com’s law school rankings. Countless students chose to attend Cornell Law School in no small part because of his achievements on the job placement front.”

“John did good work over many years in professionalizing Cornell Law School’s Office of Career Services,” says Stewart J. Schwab, dean and faculty member emeritus of Cornell Law School. “He helped literally thousands of our graduates find jobs. Our stellar placement statistics are a credit to John and his office—as well as, of course, to our outstanding students and the training they receive at Cornell,” he adds.

Statistics aside, DeRosa himself says: “Looking back, I’m most proud of the way in which my colleagues and I responded to the Great Recession. It was an unprecedented crisis in many ways, with the legal job market spiraling downward from vibrancy to depression at a remarkably fast pace.”

“Particularly challenging, and different from past slowdowns,” he observes, “was that in addition to the impact on law students, it had a rapid and massive impact on alumni. Many thousands of junior and midlevel associates lost their jobs in 2009 alone, and with the Law School sending so many graduates to large private-sector law firms, we were more than represented in those numbers,” says DeRosa. “Fortunately, our alumni were tremendously helpful, even in cases in which their own jobs were in jeopardy.”

DeRosa also says he is proud of how the Law School has responded and continues to respond to the COVID pandemic. “The health and safety of our students and staff remain at the forefront of our concerns,” DeRosa asserts. “But at the same time, we’ve needed to make sure our recruiting and other programs and processes continue.”

One example: the in-person August 2020 Job Fair was rescheduled and rebuilt in record time to be completely virtual, so that thousands of interviews could take place and be tracked over the course of a few days in January 2021, DeRosa recalls.

“It felt like we were sailing through a monsoon and building the boat as we went along,” he says. “Pulling that off was probably our single proudest moment.”

He credits Lyndsey Bullock, then director of career services at the Law School, with helping to lead the way. (She now works for the Cornell in Washington program).

Another pandemic era initiative was the creation of a summer externship course, which allows students to get academic credit for summer work—a federal immigration law requirement for many international students.

“Dean DeRosa is one of the most thoughtful, accessible people I know,” says Gabriella Bensur, A.B. ’12, J.D. ’15, an associate at White & Case LLP. “He knows all the students and their goals. He is thoughtful, approachable, and down to earth. He listens carefully and cares deeply,” she adds.  “He has the capacity to explain to law students that they will be able to meet the coming challenges. He was instrumental in helping me get a clerkship. It turned out to be an amazing experience and changed my life. I couldn’t have done it without his help.”

“I have worked with John extensively in my role as a firm hiring partner and co-chair of my firm’s New York office steering committee,” says Micaela McMurrough ’07, a hiring partner at Covington & Burling. “His brilliance is reflected not only in his knowledge of the rich variety of career paths available to Cornell lawyers and his understanding of ‘the market’ more broadly, but also in his mastery of the match between the individual lawyer and the role.”

DeRosa, who grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations as an undergraduate in 1985 to 1989.

“I was the first person in my family to attend college,” he says. He went on to enroll at Brooklyn Law School, graduating summa cum laude in 1992, then worked for a New York law firm before joining Cornell Law School’s Career Services Office in 2001.

“It was a significant move,” he says of the decision he and his wife, Jennifer, made to leave their New York life and jobs and move to Ithaca. They decided to make the move, DeRosa says, because “for me it was an opportunity to work with students more closely, which I loved. And it turned out to be exactly as I’d hoped it would be. I was very fortunate.”

Jennifer DeRosa found work here as well, doing career and other counseling as associate director of career and academic support at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Does DeRosa himself have a role model? “My grandfather John remains my greatest hero,” he says. “He never finished high school—he joined the army during World War II, received the purple heart after he was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge, and he went on to serve as a guard during the Nuremberg Trials. He always encouraged me to read, study, and work hard, and he always wanted me to go to law school. The firm I joined after law school was co-founded by Henry Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War during World War II. Telling my grandfather that I would be working for that firm (it’s Pillsbury Winthrop today) was one of the greatest moments of my life. I think he’s still smiling about it up in heaven.”

Does DeRosa have any regrets? “During my remaining time at the Law School, I will have the opportunity to directly speak with, and thank, my colleagues at the school,” he asserts. “Alas, what I will not be able to do is speak individually with all of the current and former students I have worked with over the years.

So, I’m going to say a few words to them now: I used to live right around the corner from the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side. It’s my favorite bridge in the world—and for some reason, I have always loved bridges. Walking over it with my wife Jennifer, I would often say, “See this bridge? It’s mine. I share it with eight million people, but it’s mine.

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“In that same sense, all of you were mine,” he continues. “In those moments when we sat together and talked about this and planned for that, while it may have seemed that I was doing something for you (or at least trying to, anyway), you were giving me a great gift.

“The energy, the excitement, the brilliance of you, all of you taken together—I felt it every day, and it made every day better,” he continues. “It made the hard days, and there were some very hard days, bearable, and it made the great days, and there were many great days, glorious. I spent my professional life incredibly proud to be in your company.

“Seeing you all, with your intelligence and decency, prepare to go off into the world, and away from us here at Cornell, always left me a bit sad. Yet, it also always gave me hope, and cause to think, “Hang in there, world—they’re coming.”