Compliance Manager and Attorney Nicole Perkowitz

Most law students have a specific plan when it comes to what they want to specialize in and how they go about getting there. Nicole’s journey to her current career, however, was nothing short of unconventional. Before starting law school, this 28 year-old took advantage of the time post-college by traveling to places as far as China. Even more impressive is the fact that Nicole graduated with both a law degree and a Masters in Business Administration, putting her ahead of her fellow graduates. Starting out working with accountant malpractice and real estate cases, moving on to being an assistant attorney and later becoming an in-house attorney for a smaller firm, Nicole has a diverse background in terms of what she has been able to do with her many degrees.

Paying her way through higher-education with work and student loans, Nicole’s ethic speaks volumes to the type of person and attorney she is. “Make time for the things and people you love,” is what Nicole tells us is part of being happy in this hectic world. This and more is what she shares with The Everygirl on her continuous route to success.

Full Name: Nicole Helene Perkowitz
Age: 28
Current Title/Company: Servicing and Post-Closing Compliance Manager/Prospect Mortgage, LLC.
Educational Background: Associate of Arts Degree, Santa Monica College. Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with a Minor in Sports Management, University of California Santa Barbara. Juris Doctor, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Master in Business Administration, Loyola Marymount University.

What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
After college, I headed straight to law school and while I was there I did some law clerking for a couple of law firms part time. I got both of those jobs through my mother’s business connections-turned-friends (she’s an attorney too). The firm I was clerking with during my final year of school gave me time off to study for the bar and then asked me to clerk full time while I waited for results. They were notorious for not hiring first-year attorneys so one of the greatest and most unexpected experiences was when they pulled me aside to ask if I wanted to stay on as a an associate once I passed the bar! They were so sure I was going to pass, and I did. I loved working with them. I owe them so much for teaching me the ropes and really mentoring me. I was very lucky to fall in with such a great team.

Prior to going to law school, you got your undergrad degree in Sociology with a minor in Sports Management. Was law school in the plans during college? When and why did you make the decision to go to law school?
The plan was always to go to law school, and probably business school, while being true to my “outside of the box” mentality. I majored in Sociology because I was interested in it, and always fell hard for the class descriptions like a great online dating profile. I had originally planned to double major in “law and society” but the second major was so impacted that I would have had to stay in school for an extra semester (at least) to get all of the coursework done. I also wanted to seize the opportunity to explore other interests, since I already knew I would study law later. Sports Management sounded like fun, and had an element of business built in, which I liked since I was toying with the idea of an MBA.

Studying for the LSAT is notoriously an arduous process. Tell us about your experience with the test prep. Any tips for Everygirls interested in signing up for the LSAT? (How long in advance did you begin studying? Did you take a course? How did you balance studying for the LSAT with your college coursework?)
Oh goodness, I am sure I am the WORST person to give advice in this department. By the time you get to the LSAT, you should have a pretty good idea of what kind of test taker you are and how you study best. It is important to know what works for you and to play to your strengths. My experience was especially non-traditional. I mentioned that I was “outside of the box,” right?

I am blessed with an aptitude for standardized tests and cursed with incurable wanderlust so I did what any insane person would do, and took a trip to China with my friends during the summer I was supposed to study for the LSAT. Before we left, I got a LSAT study book and took 3 practice tests (my score fell with each attempt). For me, the only logical thing to do was leave the study book at home, explore the world and just wing it on the test. Just so you know how crazy that is, at the time your scores were averaged, so if I bombed the test I was going to have a real problem. I didn’t have a back-up plan.

Aside from a passing score on the LSAT, what steps did you take to prepare for law school applications? Looking back, is there anything you wish you’d known sooner? Anything you wish you would have done?
I had a really hard time with the essay portion of the applications. It’s hard to write something that you feel describes you, and yet adequately distinguishes you from the masses of other essays. I always avoided any classes that required essays in college. and I wish I had taken the time to hone my writing skills earlier early on. It would have been valuable not only for the application process, but also for law school itself. I also wish I would have spent more time seeking out scholarships and doing whatever I needed to do to get that free money! Other than that, it’s hard to say because they don’t give you any feedback on your application other than an admission decision.

You chose to go to law school immediately after undergrad. Is this typical? Would there ever be an instance where someone would work for a year or more before going to law school? What do you think the advantages and/or disadvantages are of going immediately after school vs. after getting some work experience?
Many law schools have both day and evening programs. I believe evening programs tend to have more people who have already joined the workforce. At my school, it seemed that most people came straight from undergrad, but the day program had a decent amount of people that had taken some time off from school to work. I can’t speak specifically to the evening program there because I attended the day program.

Each way has its pros and cons. For me, going straight to law school while I was young, could live at home and devote all of my attention to school was key. Law school is all-consuming and it is hard to have much else besides schoolwork on your plate. It was also helpful to me to go straight to law school because I was used to living and being a frugal student. On the other hand, I think that some of the people who had work experience came to the table with a more mature and studious attitude. Getting your Juris Doctor is really hard work and if you think law school is like college part II, you’re in for a big shock!

You obtained a JD/MBA (Juris Doctor/Master in Business Administration). For those of us not well versed in graduate school jargon, could you explain this degree? Are there any advantages or disadvantages to graduating with this degree versus a law degree? Why did you choose the JDMBA route?
Law school is three years and an MBA takes two years to complete. The extra degree is a lot of work, but the bonus is that most schools that offer a dual degree program will allow you to count a semesters worth of coursework in each program towards the other program. This means that law school becomes 2.5 years and business school becomes 1.5 years, so you can get both degrees in 4 years. I always wanted to be an in-house attorney or work for a company as opposed to an attorney who litigated and spent time in court; so I thought the extra degree would be really interesting and increase my marketability once I finished school.

Most universities that offer the dual degree program require you to apply to, and be accepted to, each program separately. That means I had to take the GMAT (which is like the LSAT for business school) as well. I started law school in 2006 and business school in 2007, which means I was going through the testing and application process for my MBA during my first year of law school. During the 2006 school year, I attended only law school. For the school years after, that I attended classes for both programs. The law school and business school are on different campuses on opposite sides of town so it was a lot of running around!

While pursuing your JD/MBA over 3.5 years, you studied abroad each summer. Where did you go? How did you manage these trips financially along with your school expenses? Why was it important to you to travel during school?
The traveling was the best part! I spent my first summer in Paris, my second on a study abroad trip across South America, and my third in Costa Rica. I have long felt that traveling can teach you more than you can learn in any classroom. When you immerse yourself in different languages, cultures, foods, and ways of life, it really opens up your mind and forces you to examine the society and rules that you always accepted as “normal.”

Also, staying true to my “outside of the box” way of doing things, I knew that I wasn’t particularly interested in vying for the “summer associate” positions like most law students. These positions involve working in a law firm (and it typically seems like a litigation firm, but I don’t have any statistics) and getting practical experience in the hopes that they will hire you once you graduate. At the time, I didn’t want to work for a law firm once I graduated, but I really, really wanted to travel during my summers.

Doing the study abroad program was a great decision for me because even though it was expensive, I was able to graduate a semester early with all of my extra coursework (so I finished both degrees in 3.5 years as opposed 4 years). Ultimately, even though I had to pay to travel and for summer coursework (which can actually tend to be cheaper), I saved on one semester’s worth of tuition and living expenses, and got to start working after graduation several months earlier than I otherwise would have. I didn’t crunch the exact numbers because I didn’t know how much I’d eventually make when I graduated, but I figured at the time that the tradeoff wouldn’t be too bad financially. I definitely don’t regret my decision to travel.

How did you finance your education? If you took out student loans, can you tell us about this process?
I was lucky in that I didn’t have to take out loans for my undergraduate degree (thanks to my fantastic family).  My JD/MBA, however, was primarily financed through student loans. I could have gone to a lower-tier law school that offered me scholarship money, but many attorneys told me that your alma-mater holds fair amount of weight in the legal community and advised me to attend Loyola. Ultimately I took their advice (which I have found to be true), and chose to go to the better school and take out the loans.

I’m not going to lie, student loans are frustrating, they carry a fairly high interest rate when compared to other debt, like purchasing a home, and they are generally not dischargeable in bankruptcy. No matter what kind of education you are pursuing, I would recommend taking out student loans only to the extent necessary, and only after you’ve truly exhausted your other options. I would advise only taking them out for a program that you are passionate about. If you are staying in school because you’re not really sure what else to do, or because your family has encouraged you to do so, please realized that you may be taking on a lot of debt that may take decades to pay off. Treat that decision with the weight it deserves because ultimately it’s a decision only you will be responsible for the ramifications of.

At your first firm, you handled mostly accountant malpractice and real estate cases. Did you seek these industries out? If not, how did you end up working in those sectors? What other industries were you interested in?
My firm was already doing a lot of work in those areas, and as I mentioned before I was very lucky to get a position with them. Real Estate, or “Real Property” as they call it in law school, was one of my favorite courses and related to my background as a law clerk, so it was a perfect fit. Additionally, the firm and I both felt that the MBA would be beneficial in handling the accountant malpractice cases, which it truly was. I was able to bring a valuable understanding of accounting and finances to the table, which is something that they don’t teach you in law school. I can’t really say that there was a specific area of litigation that I was interested in that I didn’t get to do. I was really lucky in that sense.

What were your responsibilities as an Associate Attorney? What did an average day look like for you? Any lessons you learned early on?
As an Associate Attorney for a smaller firm, I was responsible for the day to day work on several cases. A partner of the firm would oversee my work, guide me along the way, and collaborate with me on case strategy and approach. I would, with their help and under their direction, handle all aspects of the case, from investigation to discovery, to the actual litigation and settlement phases; although I never had the opportunity to take a case all the way to trial. Mostly I would collaborate with the clients and opposing counsel, write briefs and present arguments to the court. I would also take part in settlement discussions, mediations, document production, and depositions. In addition, I was responsible for proofreading and cite checking all of the briefs for the appellate division of the firm.

In terms of lessons learned, I’d say:
1) Organization is key!
2) Read everything and read it again, think about it, then re-read it.
3) Think and plan ahead. What are your next steps and what do you think the results of taking those steps will be? Where will all of that leave you?

After working with Garrett & Tully, PC for a year, you were offered an opportunity to work in-house for a client in Orange County doing as Claims Counsel for a title insurance underwriter. Is this common in the industry, to make contacts in this way that lead to job opportunities?
Although I understand that it is common for litigators to go in-house with their clients, my experience was once again a little different. Even though the title insurance underwriter was a client of the firm, I had not personally had any acquaintance with them or worked on any of their cases. In fact, I didn’t even know that they were a client until I interviewed with them! I had heard of the job through the industry grapevine and jumped on the opportunity because I was interested in being an in-house attorney with a company as opposed to being a litigator. We understandably ended up having a lot of contacts in common, and the rest was history.

Currently, you’re living in Los Angeles working in the Compliance Department at the home office of a national mortgage lender. Why did you decide to move back to Los Angeles?
This is such a tough question to answer, but suffice it to say that I felt that I was at a place in my life when I needed to be closer to my friends and family. My job in Irvine was great, but moving to LA, where I grew up, was the right decision for me at the time.

Now that you’ve worked at three different firms/companies, what are your thoughts on the different company cultures (whether it be based on the firm, the industries you covered, etc)? Have the standard hours/lifestyle differed?

This is such a broad question! Each job has been different in its own way, but I think the most important lesson I’ve learned has been flexibility. No matter where I’ve worked there have been weeks where everyone is crazy busy and eating lunch at their desks, and weeks where people are somewhat relaxed and want to go out for a bite to eat. There are always busier times where you feel like you should be working longer hours (regardless of how long you’ve been there), and times when you are able to put in a full day and go home feeling like you’ve accomplished plenty for the day. That being said, being in-house generally offers a lot more predictability over your schedule, which I appreciate.

Best moment of your career so far?
I was in court and got to quote, to the judge, a case that my mother had argued and won when she was pregnant with me. I’m so proud of her.

What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Learn to set boundaries between your personal and professional lives. Make time for the things and people you love. Happiness is not something you get by acquiring things or achieving certain accomplishments; happiness is something you have to learn to find every day, wherever you are in life, with whatever you’ve got.