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Third Year Law Student Nathaniel Koppel Wants to be a Human Rights Attorney

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Personal Life

Melvyn Weiss
Nathaniel Koppel is a third year law student at University of Illinois College of Law and anticipates a May 2013 graduation. Although Nathaniel has several areas of interest including working in the public interest field, international law and international criminal law, the student hopes to become a human rights attorney. He plans on taking the New York State Bar.


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Nathaniel was born in Buffalo, NY, and he grew up in Naperville, IL, with his mother, father and two older brothers. He said:
"I have two older brothers-one who works on web development, and the other an accountant-whose presence in my life is very meaningful. One of them challenges me on how I view the world and the role of government in our lives, and though we disagree, it's intellectually edifying to argue my beliefs. And we generally have an excellent time when we are together. And my parents' love and support in everything I do has been an essential part of me getting to where I am-and who I am-today. I couldn't thank them enough for what they've done."
Nathaniel graduated with a B.A. in Politics & Philosophy from Drake University in May 2008. While attending Drake, he served as "Top Junior" at Leaders and Luminaries, Philanthropy chair of Tau Kappa Epsilon, Outreach and Press Chair and Vice President of Drake Democrats, and was a founder and president of Drake undergraduate mediation and moot court teams.

At University of Illinois College of Law, Nathaniel received Honors in Legal Research and was on the Dean's List for Fall 2011. As a 2L, he participated in the Jessup Moot Court competition. Although Nathaniel explained that he found no particular argument thrilling during the competition, he said you always learn when you prepare for an argument.

During the summer of 2011, Nathaniel worked in an externship for the chambers of the Hon. William K. Sessions III, at the U.S. District Court in Burlington, Vermont. He worked on several cases, including a motion to dismiss an indictment of a long-wanted member of a Canadian drug-smuggling ring on grounds of outrageous government conduct, as well as a motion for summary judgment in an employment discrimination case that hinged on EEOC filing deadlines. In addition to observing a significant number of sentencing hearings and a civil trial in a diversity action, Nathaniel worked on a handful of other cases, including a real-estate contract dispute and a theft of trade secrets/violation of Non-Disclosure Agreement complaint, and several preliminary injunction/TRO motions.

During the summer of 2012, Nathaniel also worked an externship for the Cook County Public Defender, at a misdemeanor branch court on the west side of Chicago. As per Illinois Supreme Court Rule 711, he represented clients under the supervision of an attorney. Every day, Nathaniel would take anywhere from a dozen to two dozen case files, meet with the client, conduct intake, and evaluate the allegations and options for the client. He would then conduct plea negotiations with the state's attorneys or schedule the case for trial. Nathaniel also represented clients before the judge in many plea colloquies, three trials, in a number of bail hearings and in two felony preliminary hearings.

In the fall of 2012, he served the Domestic Violence Clinic, through the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. Nathaniel assisted victims of abuse in obtaining Orders of Protection and divorces as a Senior Law Student under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 711. From 2012 to 2013, he has also been part of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, working on a DNA appeal for a man wrongly convicted of murder. When asked about his experience of helping exonerate individuals, Nathaniel replied, "It's gratifying to be a part of exonerating people who have been wrongly convicted."

His work entitled "Nails in the Coffin of the Vampire: Personal Sovereign Immunity and its Timely but Incomplete Death," will be published in the University of Illinois Law Review, Issue 4 in the Fall of 2014. Nathaniel recently worked as a research assistant on a project involving the monetization of popular music on YouTube, and he anticipates on working on another one on the teaching of laws of armed conflict.

When the Drake University alumnus isn't studying, he enjoys running, cooking, reading and learning. Nathaniel added, "I would say my favorite thing is listening to music. In college, I had a radio show for over three years, playing new music; today I still avidly listen to everything from classical symphonies and piano concerti to jazz, electronic, indie rock, and hip hop releases." His favorite books are F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

Nathaniel's Academic Law Career and Future Aspirations

Why did Nathaniel go into the law? "I came to law school because I believe the ability to file legal actions is an essential part of creating social change. It's just one tool in the toolbox, but it's a very important one when the others don't work."

What are the areas of the law Nathaniel hopes to practice? He asserted:
"My goal is to work in international criminal law, human rights law, international law generally, or somewhere in the public interest field. As long as I am helping make the world a better place, I'd be happy. I could also be happy working at a firm, so long as the firm culture was one that recognized the importance of pro bono work, and I was able to volunteer meaningfully in my free time."
Nathaniel shared his aims and aspirations. He stated:

"My dream is to advance human rights for all people, regardless of who they are and where they live. I also dream of a world without conflict, where instead of needing expensive weapons which can obliterate targets from across the world, governments see to it that all of their citizens can read and write. I believe that a peaceful world is not only possible, but would be well within our grasp when we recognize the common humanity that we all share. I'd be happy in any number of career options, as long as I thought my work was helping to advance these aspirations-whether it was international law, or public interest work, or non-legal work helping to advance these goals. Suffice it to say, I want my work to advance the cause of solving inequality, hunger, disease, and war in the 21st Century."

When asked about his key accomplishments, the candid law student admitted:
"This is a difficult question to answer; I haven't done much yet that I feel is worth promoting. I have helped unite an 89-year old Ukrainian woman in Chicago with her family abroad, through the international family tracing services of the Greater Chicago Red Cross; during my AmeriCorps term, I provided assistance to people who had lost everything-their homes and possessions-after house fires and floods. I even worked as the night manager at a Red Cross shelter for over 150 flood victims in Raritan, New Jersey."
Nathaniel discussed his key strengths and skills that he would like to use to advance his career goals. He said:
"I believe my knowledge of technology is one that so far has been underused compared to its greater utility. Getting ordinary people to care about issues-from protecting the constitutional rights of the indigent accused to taking action to protecting sustainable energy and resources-requires reaching out to people in a way that is emotionally and intellectually meaningful. The means by which that connection is made is not the same for all people, so it can be difficult to establish a broad base of support-but the beauty of technology (like social media, online journalism, videos, and a comprehensive web presence) is that you can tailor your approach in a variety of ways. And when people find something that strikes them, they can share it with the people they care about, furthering the message."
As for his weakness, Nathaniel noted, "Sometimes I fear I multi-task too much; time management is also somewhat of a concern."

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Since law school can be hectic at times, Nathaniel talked about how he relieves stress. "I might take a walk, try to take in some nature in a park, go for a run, listen to some music-anything that can clear my head and take my mind off whatever problems I'm facing, so that when I return to the problem, I can do so refreshed and reinvigorated."

Many readers are probably wondering how Nathaniel handles new assignments. The third year law student shared his process: "This is highly dependent on the nature of the assignment, but I like to get a good understanding of the context of the situation-to see the forest-to best understand how things (e.g. disputes, conflicts, or problems in need of solving) arose."

Where does Nathaniel derive his confidence? "I suppose, in part, from the fact that I know I-and anyone who truly wants to-can make a difference in our world."

Coping with Fear, Volunteer Experience, Study Abroad Program and Legal Role Models

In regards to handling fear, Nathaniel acknowledged:
"I like to think I have a strong constitution; I believe the best way to deal with fear is to conquer it with action. I've been in a lot of frightening situations-dealing with Chinese police boarding the bus I was riding at 2AM through Yunnan province, demanding my passport, as well as dealing with the chaotic end of a rally during the NATO summits in May 2013, when 'black bloc' protesters charged the police and my partner ACLU observer tripped and fell over a bike; we could've been trampled. But paralysis only compounds the situation; determined action is what is needed at such times."
Nathaniel discussed his volunteer experience from 2009 to 2010. He disclosed:

"When I lived in Philadelphia, I volunteered for the Southern Philadelphia Literacy Partnership, leading free English as a Second Language classes for refugees and immigrants. It was immensely rewarding, being able to help people who were new to America and couldn't necessarily do the things we take for granted, like even ordering a pizza on the phone (or, more seriously, calling 911 if need be).

This past summer, I volunteered with the Greater Chicago Red Cross, assisting with international family tracing on a database building project, as well as on several tracing inquiries. I also monitored NATO summit protests as an ACLU observer."

When asked if he had been a part of any study abroad program, he shared:
"In 2012…for a class on the law of microfinance, I went on a trip to Malawi with about 15 other law school colleagues and our professor. It was amazing, for so many reasons. The most gratifying thing, perhaps, was delivering over $600 worth of school supplies of every kind to a primary school in Southern Malawi; I led this project, so it meant a lot to me to see it come to fruition. Additionally, despite the immense poverty we saw (Malawi being in the top ten poorest nations on Earth) the people were incredibly friendly and gracious, and just generally delightful. (There is a reason they call it the 'warm heart of Africa.') We learned a great deal about entrepreneurship, and how micro loans can make a big difference in a developing economy, as well as how access to health care is paramount. The avocados were also really delicious."
Does Nathaniel have any legal role models? He explained:
"Thurgood Marshall is one, for his work on the forefront of the fight for civil rights with the NAACP. Similarly, I find the story behind Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company (among other landmark cases) inspiring-just the idea that sexual harassment in the workplace should be, and was, tolerated seems ridiculous, and the incredible perseverance of the plaintiffs in that case, enduring over a decade of invasive and insulting questions and accusations during the litigation-only to finally find some semblance of legal vindication-is meaningful to me."
Personal Philosophy, People You Want to Surround Yourself With, Most Influential Traveling Experience and Favorite Quote

What is Nathaniel's personal philosophy? The law student revealed:
"I like to think I am a man of action. There are more than enough problems in the world-or just the town I live in-to overwhelm, demoralize and discourage you. Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people lack access to clean water, even. Across the world, women are subjugated, denied basic rights, and even traded like commodities and forced into lives of modern-era slavery. But the answer is not to become despondent or give up caring, but to do what it takes-donating time, money, helping spread the word, or in my case, devoting my life-to solve these pressing issues."
The future attorney talked about what he believes holds more truth in light of his personal philosophy. Was it fate or choice? "Choice. I am a firm believer that while circumstances may bring us to where we are, our choices lead us everyday."

What kind of situations and people is Nathaniel attracted to? What kind of situations and people does he avoid? "I try not to surround myself solely with people that share my viewpoints; I like to debate and discuss, and even with people who I disagree with (e.g. politically) I try to find points of common ground, common goals and common values. I believe in treating people with respect, and so long as others share that mutual respect, I think I can get along with them, regardless of other divisions." Nathaniel added, "I believe in the value of both spending time with people and being alone. Careful thought and reflection can go a long way in finding solutions to problems-but speaking with others, hearing ideas and cooperative collaboration can often do much to find creative answers."

Nathaniel talked about his most influential traveling experience. The traveler said:
"I lived abroad in Kunming, Yunnan province, in China (2008 to 2009), for a year after college, teaching English to college students. Though teaching English wasn't for me, as I concluded, the experience was incredibly rewarding. The food was incomparable, the sights were unforgettable, and the number of things I learned about China, as well as the fascinating people I met-words just don't do it justice.
Since then, I've been lucky enough to travel to Quebec, Israel and Palestine, and Germany. When I was in Germany, I traveled overnight to The Hague, in the Netherlands, to meet with Brenda J. Hollis, the prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and a staff member from the International Criminal Court. It really was like a dream come true."
Nathaniel's favorite quote is by John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause. Gardner said, "The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water." Why does this quote resonate with Nathaniel? "It gets to the heart of what values I have. I am a pragmatist. Lawyers play an important part in the economy, but it isn't about a job title. It's about how you help people."

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