Alumni News

UCLA Law Magazine | Fall 2020

Alumni Highlights: Checking in With 11 Graduates on Success and Transition

Evan Graham Arango ’20

One of UCLA School of Law’s most recent graduates, Evan Graham Arango ’20 founded and manages a regenerative farm, Ojai Roots. Ojai Roots uses planting practices that are centered on building healthy soil and that minimize water consumption, control weeds and encourage a habitat in which critical soil organisms thrive. The goal of Ojai Roots is to sustainably produce as much high-quality produce as possible per square foot. With a specialization in environmental law, Arango plans to complement his farming by leveraging his legal training to advocate for law and policy that promotes sustainable agriculture, locally and globally. This trend will decrease reliance on industrial agriculture, destructive production methods and the depletion of soil health.

Arango has a long history of embarking on interesting and adventurous journeys. He set a world record at age 16 for being the youngest solo pilot to fly five different aircrafts and has climbed several of the world’s tallest mountains, including Kilimanjaro and Matterhorn. 

Songhai Armstead ’03

Judge Songhai Armstead ’03 was recently named head of the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative, coordinating multiple departments, community activists and service providers to promote “care first, jail last.” Identified by the L.A. County CEO’s office as an innovator and longtime advocate for the underserved, Armstead takes the job after her retirement from the L.A. Superior Court bench, to which she was appointed in 2015.

Armstead was instrumental in creating innovative programs that assist justice-involved veterans, homeless people and those with mental health and substance abuse disorders, focusing on getting people the treatment and housing resources they need to improve their lives and break the cycle of incarceration. She has trained the justices of the California Supreme Court and hundreds of others in the justice system on how powerful unseen biases shape actions and contribute to systemic racism.

Michael Baum 85

Michael Baum played a key role on the legal team that in 2018 won a nearly $300 million verdict against Monsanto for failing to warn consumers that exposure to Roundup weed killer causes cancer. Baum’s law firm, Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, ended up representing approximately 700 plaintiffs in lawsuits against Monsanto. In the two years since the initial verdict, juries have found against Monsanto for more than $2 billion. The firm has uploaded documents from Monsanto, obtained during discovery, to allow the general public to read internal Monsanto emails, text messages, company reports, studies and other memoranda.

The president and senior managing partner of his firm, Baum directs its mass-tort litigation practice, including defective or harmful pharmaceutical drugs, medical devices, herbicides and consumer products. In 2019, he was added to Lawdragon’s 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers list.

Diego Cartagena ’03

Diego Cartagena ’03 was named in January as the new president and CEO of the public interest law firm Bet Tzedek, following the departure of fellow UCLA Law graduate Jessie Kornberg (see below). Only the eighth person to oversee Bet Tzedek in its 46-year history, Cartagena is the first person of color to lead the organization. He has been with Bet Tzedek since 2012, first serving as director of pro bono programs and then as vice president of legal programs. Cartagena has dedicated his career to public interest law, including an Equal Justice Works fellowship at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice and leadership of the pro bono programs at the Alliance for Children’s Rights.

Widely recognized as a national leader in legal service delivery model design, Cartagena’s work at Bet Tzedek has included the launch of the organization’s Small Business Legal Academies and the Rapid Response: Family Preparedness Project, which in 2017 served more than 20,000 undocumented parents facing threats of deportation.

Grace Dilaura ’12

In July 2020, Grace DiLaura ’12 co-authored a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in Federal and State Prisons,” as part of her work in UCLA Law’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. The report examined how the coronavirus pandemic presents a challenge to prisons because of close confinement, limited access to personal protective equipment and elevated burden of cardiac and respiratory conditions that exacerbate COVID-19 risk among prisoners. The study showed that, adjusting for age and sex differences between U.S. prisoners and the U.S. population, the death rate would be three times higher for prisoners compared to the general U.S. population.

DiLaura has served as one of the leaders of the project’s data-collection team. The publication’s co-authors include Professor Sharon Dolovich, who directs the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project and led UCLA’s contributions to the study, and Kalind Parish, a pre-doctoral research fellow with the project and co-lead of the data-collection operation. Co-authors from the Johns Hopkins Department of Health Policy and Management include lead writer Brendan Saloner and Julie Ward.

Halim Dhanidina ’97

Appointed in 2018 to the California Court of Appeals, Halim Dhanidina ’97 bears the distinction of achieving several “firsts” – he is the first Muslim to be appointed a judge in California, the first South Asian American to serve as an appellate justice in California and the first Muslim appellate-level judge in the United States. First appointed to the L.A. Superior Court in 2012, he presided over 72 jury trials and has heard more than 100 appeals to date. He previously prosecuted cases for the L.A. County District Attorney for 14 years, while developing crime-prevention programs for the Asian Youth Center and South Asian Network.

Justice Dhanidina has taught as an adjunct professor of law at several local law schools, currently serves as a lecturer at UC Irvine School of Law and has regularly administered the Oath of Professionalism at UCLA Law’s annual convocation ceremony for entering students. He is a board member of the Muslim-Jewish community-building organization NewGround, and he sits on the advisory board of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association, as well as on the Orange County advisory council of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Jessie Kornberg ’07

This past July, Jessie Kornberg ’07 was named president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles’ venerated Jewish museum and cultural venue. Kornberg joined the Skirball from her position as president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, the Los Angeles-based human rights and poverty rights organization and center for social justice. (Fellow UCLA Law alum Diego Cartagena ’03 was elevated to head the organization; see above.) Kornberg’s career has long demonstrated a passion for social justice, and she will guide the Skirball with an eye toward focusing on immigrant rights and racial equity. 

Previously a litigator at Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks, Lincenberg & Rhow, Kornberg also founded and served as executive director of the nonprofit Ms. J.D. and clerked for Judge Jon P. McCalla of the U.S. District Court in Memphis. While at UCLA Law, Kornberg served as editor-in-chief of the Women’s Law Journal. In 2017, she joined UCLA Law’s Board of Advisors, and she delivered the commencement address at UCLA Law in 2019.

Nick Lum ’07

In 2013, Nick Lum ’07 founded BeeLine Reader, a technology company that makes reading on screen easier. Rather than use plain black text, BeeLine Reader applies a color gradient to online text that wraps from the end of one line of text to the beginning of the next. By improving visual focus, readers’ eyes follow text with more facility, thereby improving visual focus for individuals of all ages and skill levels. This tech has proven to be especially helpful for people with learning disabilities, ADHD or vision loss. In March 2020, BeeLine Reader partnered with Blackboard, the educational tech company, and became fully integrated as a standard feature within Blackboard’s accessibility tool, Blackboard Ally.

Lum also created Read Across the Aisle, a project of BeeLine Reader. In reaction to the outcry over filter bubbles that followed the election of Donald Trump and the 2016 Brexit vote, the goal of Read Across the Aisle is to help people discover news sources they might not otherwise see in their social media feeds. Among other innovations, the app uses crowd sourcing to create a partisanship rating of each site available to users. Lum’s startups have won international social impact awards and been covered by The New York Times, NPR and The Atlantic.

Thuy Thi Nguyen ’00

Thuy Thi Nguyen ’00 has long been a part of and advocated for community colleges. Since 2016, she has served as president of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, making her the first Vietnamese American college president in the country. For more than 11 years, Nguyen was general counsel of the Peralta Community College District. She also served as interim general counsel for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, where she oversaw equal employment opportunity plans for 72 community college districts and 113 colleges.  

Nguyen, whose family fled as boat people from Vietnam, co-published a book, 25 Vietnamese Americans in 25 Years, chronicling the first 25 years of Vietnamese people in America since the Fall of Saigon. At UCLA Law, Nguyen was in the inaugural class of the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy. In 1999, she was named the recipient of a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Ben Ryzak ’18

In an increasingly tumultuous election season, Ben Ryzak ’18 decided to make a change. In July, he left his position as an associate working on corporate and finance matters at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Los Angeles to work as a voter-protection associate with the Biden campaign. Working primarily in the Las Vegas area, Ryzak is responsible for managing volunteer poll watchers to ensure the fair administration of polling places. 

Ryzak is no stranger to politics. As a law student, he served as the 1L and 3L class president of the Student Bar Association, as well as the student body vice president. Additionally, he served as the co-founder and student chair of UCLA Law’s public interest celebration, U. Serve L.A., helping to raise more than $100,000 for the law school’s public interest law program.

Christina Snider 13

A member of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, Christina Snider 13 is the tribal advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom and executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission. She is responsible for overseeing and implementing effective government-to-government consultation between the governor’s administration and tribes on policies that affect California’s numerous tribal communities. Named to the position in 2018, Snider facilitates consultations between tribes and state agencies and reviews and offers recommendations on state legislation and regulations that affect tribes.

Since she graduated from UCLA Law in 2013, Snider has served as a law clerk at the Office of Tribal Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice and at the Hualapai Court of Appeals. She also worked with the Wishtoyo Foundation/Ventura Coastkeeper, the National Congress of American Indians, Ceiba Legal and the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. While at UCLA Law, Snider was active with the Tribal Appellate Court Clinic, and she served on the National Native American Law Student Association (NALSA) executive board.