Opposite page, left to right: Danika Paskvan, Jacob Sievers, Ambra Casonato, and Bliss Griffin
They’ve performed in Carnegie Hall, at Lincoln Center, on Broadway, and in cities around the globe. Now, they’ve landed at Fordham Law, and are discovering that many of the same skills that helped them succeed in the arts are serving them well as 1Ls.
By Marjorie Ingall
does one transition from the arts world to the legal world?
does one transition from the arts world to the legal world?
does one transition from the arts world to the legal world?
Ask Veronica Dunlap ’14, a former professional dancer who trained with Alvin Ailey, performed with the Dance Theater of Harlem and Urban Bush Women, and appeared in the movie Center Stage. Now, Dunlap (who also managed to nab a B.A. in international affairs from George Washington University along the way) is director of strategic initiatives at the National Network for Safe Communities, a research center at CUNY/John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The career shift from performance to public policy was initially propelled by the aches and pains that come with dancing for a living. “By the time I was 28, I had severe tendinitis in my toes and in my hips; I’d been dancing for 25 years and my body was saying, ‘That’s it,’” she says. “But I realized that working as an artist, I’d built business management skills. I’d read contracts, managed a complex schedule, and had so much experience negotiating a fair deal.”

Indeed, when fellow dancers in one company she was in began having contract issues, they urged her to do the talking. “We were about to go on tour and were rehearsing during the day and performing at night,” recalls Dunlap. I told management, ‘This is way more than an eight-hour day.’ The operations person’s face just froze. He said, ‘How do you know that?’ It was because I knew the law!”

And that was before law school. “I realized that as a lawyer, I could be even better at business management and understanding the protections and rights workers have.”

Once she was enrolled at Fordham Law, Dunlap realized that her background as a dancer gave her an advantage. “Performing artists tend to be super organized, competitive people,” she says. “To do our job, we have to walk in feeling like we’re the best of the best. We have to cope with rejection. We have an incredible work ethic; our classmates will complain about the amount of reading while we’re saying, OK, if I get up an hour earlier than everyone else … It’s impossible to hide a lack of work in dance. We can see everything.”

Veronica Dunlap
“I realized that working as an artist, I’d built business management skills. I’d read contracts, managed a complex schedule, and had so much experience negotiating a fair deal.”
Yet being a dancer also taught her about the need to not let that competitive spirit overwhelm her—something that has served her well in her career. “In dance and law, you have to be competitive while also being able to work together. In dance, if another dancer gets the lead role, you have to be able to say, ‘Congrats!’ and mean it, even as you’re thinking, I’ll get it next year. In law school, too, we all want top grades and accolades, and as lawyers we all want to win our cases. But you also need to have a level of collegiality. Even if you’re on the same case with someone as opposing counsel, it’s important to be able to go to lunch together when it’s over.”

Dunlap also urges Fordham Law’s performers-turned-1Ls to “lean into the things that made you a great artist. When other people say, ‘I went to Wharton before law school!’ or, ‘I was an engineer before law school!’ you can say with pride, ‘I was an artist!’ That takes rigor and excellence.”

She also suggests they draw on examples from their previous careers when tackling the challenges that law school brings. “You can often say, wait a minute, that incident when I was a performing artist was a civil rights issue or a constitutional issue or a contracts issue.” Just as important, she says, is not abandoning their art. “I still dance every day,” she says, “whether at home, on the subway, or when I go for walks. It’s part of my being.”

Here, snapshots of four 1Ls who are following in Dunlap’s footsteps.

Danika Paskvan
Anchorage, AK
B.A. in linguistics and violin from Northwestern University; master’s degree in viola from Juilliard
not just a chip off the old block: There are no classical musicians in my family; my parents are rock-listening people and have no idea how I got so uncool as to want to play the violin. But I started at 8; I just loved the sound. When I got to Juilliard, I played with people I’d heard on recordings, like Alan Gilbert and Esa-Pekka Salonen. It seemed incredible that I was right there next to them.

I toured with Itzhak Perlman when he conducted the Juilliard Orchestra at David Geffen Hall and in Chicago. I also spent a month in Finland and got to play at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, among other things. I toured India with the Yale Schola Cantorum and was even sent to Bolivia last year as an arts envoy for the U.S. State Department. It was all beyond my wildest dreams.

image of Danika Paskvan from Anchorage, AK
the secret to her success: I was never the very best player, technically, but I got a lot of leadership positions and opportunities because I’m even-keeled. I tend to stay calm under pressure. A violist in the Chicago Symphony once said that the person who wins the audition is the calmest one.

the turning point: I’d come to New York City to follow music—I wanted to see how far I could take it. I thought I’d perform in the city through my 30s, but even when I was performing alongside incredible musicians at the peak of my playing career, it felt like something was missing from my life. I’m from Anchorage, and all along, I knew that law would be the path that would get me back home. I’m fourth-generation Alaskan, and there are no law schools in Alaska, so I’d be attending law school out of state no matter what. I’d hoped to go to Fordham from the beginning. For one thing, it’s right at Lincoln Center so I already knew which coffee shops I liked.

dipping into law, to help other artists: In 2018, I started work as a paralegal at an immigration firm, doing Extraordinary Ability visas, a special visa category for people at the top of their profession in the arts, and also the sciences, business, and technology. Initially I was interested because of my background in music, but the job became much more than that. My first green card application was for a very accomplished photojournalist. There I was, at the beginning of my legal career, helping make it possible for her to continue her career here. I also did artist visas for people I’d done gigs with—people who had come to this country to contribute their skill to our talent pool. Without an Extraordinary Ability visa, they wouldn’t have been able to do that. Advocating for these folks—having one foot in the music world and one in the immigration world—it was all very gratifying.

how her background helps her now: Musicians get so much feedback, solicited and unsolicited! Through performing music, I’ve developed the skill of self-examination, the ability to recognize my own weaknesses with clarity, to be humble about my ability, and to see where I need work. We’re also used to performing, so we learn how to cope with being nervous.

an eye to the future: It was cool and unexpected to experience that nexus of music and law while working in immigration. But there are not many opportunities in the arts and law back in Alaska, so I’m thinking about going into corporate governance, maybe mergers and acquisitions, or dealing with the issues of corporate social responsibility, sustainable development, and environmental law that make such a direct impact on many communities in my state.

Ambra Casonato
Pordenone, Italy
B.A. in music performance from the Royal Academy of Music in London; master’s degree in violin from the Conservatorium van Amsterdam; master’s degree in historical performance from Juilliard; master’s degree in musicology from Princeton
an old soul: When I was 3 years old, my parents sent me to a music class and the teacher brought in several instruments, including an accordion, a trumpet, and a violin. I don’t remember if anyone played the violin—I just remember looking at it on the table, then going home and saying, ‘I want to play.’ My parents thought I’d forget about it but I bothered them for a year, started playing when I was 4, and didn’t stop. I’ve performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, St. Martin in the Fields in London, and La Fenice in Venice. I’ve also played for people in a vegetative state in Austria and for transplant patients at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I thought maybe I’d get a Ph.D. in musicology—I’m interested in how music interacts with social conditions and politics in 17th-century Italy—but that was just not the right path for me.

filling a need: As a musician, I could see all the ways musicians need the law. Some don’t know how to advocate for themselves. Many don’t know how to read a contract—often they are not even given a contract. I got very upset by the way things are in the music business, but with law, even if I lose, I can try to fight injustice. If you’re in music, sometimes you can’t even try because of the politics, because fighting something could hurt your career in the long run.

image of Ambra Casonato from Pordenone, Italy
how her background helps her now: I have the discipline to sit there and study, even if the reading is long or difficult. And the way I process information … I think I can come up with creative solutions that maybe aren’t what people expect but that still work.

an eye to the future: I would like to do corporate law and combine it with entertainment law. The more classes I take, the better idea I’ll have. But I am still an active performer, and I usually play at Lincoln Center with the American Classical Orchestra. We perform music from the 17th to 19th centuries, using period instruments and techniques. In the future, I’d like to continue to play and maybe have a few violin students.

Bliss Griffin
Oakland, CA
B.F.A. in acting from the University of Miami; M.B.A. from Fordham Gabelli School of Business
practical to the core: I work full-time as the national diversity and inclusion strategist for the Actors’ Equity Association and I’m in the Evening Program at Fordham. I caught the theater bug sitting on the alphabet rug at the public library. The city’s black repertory theater did an abridged performance of The Taming of the Shrew there—my mom still has the newspaper clipping with a photograph of me, in pigtails, watching. From then on, I was hooked. My undergrad days were filled with acting and dance classes and I performed on campus every semester. For my work study, I built sets and sold tickets in the campus theater’s box office. But it wasn’t until my last year that I took a class in the business of theater. No one had ever talked to me about that aspect of the industry and in retrospect, I think it’s that solid understanding of how the entertainment business works—how the money moves—that allowed me to work consistently as an artist.
image of Bliss Griffin from Oakland, CA
life on tour: Just before I graduated college, I booked a role in the national tour of Curious George Live! I toured for a year, then I did what we all do—came to NYC to “day job” and audition. Early on, I landed a season at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, one of the largest Shakespeare festivals in the world. I taught, I understudied, I choreographed, and I earned my Actors’ Equity card. I also wound up with a big pile of credits, including leads in Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in 2015, I was in the original cast of Little Rock, which ran off-Broadway last year. I won a Barrymore Award for that show—that’s Philadelphia’s version of the Tony. It’s on a shelf at my office.

the turning point: Three years ago, I thought, I am five years younger than my mom was when she had me. I love this career, but it’s not providing the lifestyle I want to give my kids someday. At this point I was in the 98th percentile of earnings according to union statistics, but I’d never made more than $30,000 in a year. That’s how hard it is to make a living in theater. So I started talking to myself about what else might be interesting. I can cry on cue, but I don’t know much about Excel. I didn’t necessarily want to perform anymore, but I still love the biz, so I decided to get an M.B.A. at Gabelli. In my last year I took Employment Law with Lori Rassas at the Law School. It had everything to do with what I’d learned as a union liaison on so many of my gigs, as well as employing artists, which is essential to the industry. I totally found my happy place—and I hadn’t even known it was a thing!

how her background helps her now: People often doubt the seriousness and intelligence of actors, but the truth is that we’re really thoughtful craftspeople in the toughest industry out there. Actors are comfortable with vulnerability, we’re emotionally honest, we learn fast, and we thrive under pressure. Acting was a perfect training ground for this new life in which I’m juggling the rigors of law school, restructuring a department at a brand-new job, and building a happy social life, all with only 24 hours in each day.

an eye to the future: I imagine my perfect career as in-house counsel at an entertainment union—I want to stay close to arts and continue advocating for performers. But who knows? Check in with me when I’ve got more than two courses under my belt.

Jacob Sievers
Carterville, IL
B.A. in music performance from Vanderbilt University; master’s degree in piano from the Manhattan School of Music
Playing catchup: I grew up in a rural town in southern Illinois and took piano lessons from a local teacher I adored. I never got the professional-grade instruction that many of my peers at Vanderbilt had gotten, so I had a lot of catching up to do. I had to build a tool kit to learn how to practice efficiently—both physically, with my fingers, and mentally.
A sense of something missing: For the longest time I thought I’d do a doctorate in music arts, but halfway through my first semester, in 2014, I realized I’d taken it as far as I wanted to—the academic side of piano wasn’t for me. And I wasn’t doing enough performing to earn a steady income. Instead, I worked part-time in music publicity and for a small concert series, then got a full-time job at an artists’ management company. None of it really felt right, though if you told me I’d be in school again at any point I’d have said you were crazy. Until one day it just clicked that I had to forge a new path if I wanted to be intellectually fulfilled. I’d always had this gut feeling that I was capable of a lot more, but I’d been so focused on music that I’d never been able to fully develop other interests.

Cultivating a new passion: While working at a classical music management company in 2016, I happened to read a book about George Washington by Ron Chernow. I discovered I loved reading about U.S. history, and decided that I would read a book about every president, going chronologically. Well, you can’t learn about U.S. presidents without learning about precedents of law in the United States. That’s when I realized that law school was exactly the right thing.

How his background helps him now: Pianists are known for the absurd amount of time we spend practicing. A singer can only practice a certain amount before they lose their voice, but a pianist, if they’re motivated, can practice a lot. As a result, I do everything with extreme focus. That determination is necessary to be proficient at an instrument. Now I’m using the same tools to put law school concepts together and see how they build on each other. It’s all about building blocks.

image of Jacob Sievers from Carterville, IL
An eye to the future: Whether or not I do entertainment law or something else, I’ll always be passionate about classical music. It’s been a huge part of my life since I was 7. I still play every day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Still, having been at Fordham Law for only a few months, I know: This is the correct path. This is what I should be doing. There were definitely amazing highs as a pianist, when I was learning and getting it right, but also amazing lows when I was struggling. Now, every day, I think, I’m in the right place.