Class of 2016: Former Legislative Aide Chose UVA Law to Better Understand Legal History

Riff says the work experience she gained on Capitol Hill prior to law school helped her appreciate and give context to her three-year journey.

Emily Riff’s journey to the University of Virginia School of Law, from which she will graduate May 22 as a member of the Class of 2016, began on Capitol Hill.

Riff worked as a staff member for Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, and then as a legislative aide to Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. It was while working on education policy for Franken, she said, that she realized she wanted – needed – to know more.


“I got to work on the [proposed] Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is like Title IX but for LGBT students,” she said. “The legislation said that in primary and secondary schools, when a student says, ‘I don’t feel safe in my school,’ the school has to do something to respond. So I worked with our education person, but I also worked with the judiciary people, and all of them were lawyers.”

The lawyers she spoke with had deep subject matter expertise in civil rights litigation, she said – something she didn’t have. 

“They could talk about the history behind civil rights suits and how that would affect our bill, and no matter how much I studied, no matter how many meetings I sat in with them, how many reports I read from the ACLU, I just couldn’t get there.”

It was time, she realized, for law school.

Riff was born in Denver but grew up in Minneapolis, so Virginia was far from home. But, as is the case for many prospective students, once she visited UVA, she knew Charlottesville was where she wanted to be.

“I fell in love with Charlottesville, the teachers, the students,” she said. “I knew that being in law school I was going to be studying a lot, and I knew I wouldn’t have a ton of free time. I thought, well how do I want to spend that free time? I wanted to spend it on the Downtown Mall, and I wanted to spend it in the mountains.” (She did spend much of that time in the mountains with her German shepherd, Tasha, and adopted black lab mix, Scout.)

After graduation, Riff will clerk for Judge Paul Watford of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena, California (Watford reportedly was one of President Barack Obama’s finalists as a nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court). Riff is passionate about appellate work, and wanted to gain the experience that comes with working for an appellate judge.

“You get this opportunity to see how judges think about things, you get insight that you would have no other way of getting,” she said. “When you work for an appellate judge, you write a lot, you do research for the judge, you write bench memos. As an appellate lawyer, the major way you are communicating in court is through your writing, so it’s really important to have your writing be excellent.”

After her clerkship, she plans to move to Denver to join the law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, where she worked as a summer associate. As with her decision to come to UVA, the job in Denver has the potential for strong work-life balance, she said, combining the chance to work at an elite global firm with the ability to pursue outdoor activities and other passions.

Riff credits her professors for imparting their wisdom to her throughout her time in school. She worked closely with Professors Kenneth Abraham and Leslie Kendrick and incoming Dean Risa Goluboff, serving as a research assistant to Abraham and Goluboff. Goluboff praised Riff as an exceptional contributor to the academic environment.

“I feel truly fortunate to have gotten to know Emily during her time here at UVA,” Goluboff said. “She is not only a stellar student, she is also a wonderful person. As my research assistant, Emily always went above and beyond. As a classroom participant, she is always engaged in the most positive way. She offers her views, rethinks her views, listens to her peers. And she always does so with good will, generosity and a smile on her face. She’s just such a positive person in every way.”

Riff credits Abraham for teaching her to think like a lawyer, Goluboff for mentoring and Kendrick for sparking her interest in free-speech issues. Riff is writing a “note” on free speech that she plans to submit to the Virginia Law Review, where she served as notes development editor. (“Notes” are articles that students or recent graduates write and submit for publication.)

“I worked with a really great team of people,” Riff said. “I think we selected some great pieces and I really value the relationships I made with the other people on the managing board. The first weekend we met, it was like ‘Oh wow, all these people are super nerdy like me!’”

Riff also spoke highly of the Peer Advisor Program at UVA Law, which she said helped her greatly as a first-year student, and which she then paid back by serving as a Peer Advisor herself in her second year. After working in Washington between college and law school, Riff said, “it was really important to me to feel welcomed back into the student environment.”

The Peer Advisors serve as sounding boards for concerns about study methods and advice about difficult classes, but also provide a social network, organizing potlucks and other events to make incoming students feel at home in law school.

Poised for the next steps in her law career, Riff stressed the importance of real-world experience.

“I think that I would not have enjoyed my time in law school as much if I hadn’t done these other things, because I wouldn’t have had my experience to draw on,” she said. “When I came to law school, it was because I had really thought deliberately and really made a conscious decision to do it. And I think that helped me lean in a little bit. Having seen what else is out there, when I did make the decision to come, I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”

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Mary Wood

Chief Communications Officer University of Virginia School of Law