Books, Harvard, Summer Associates

Summer Associate of the Day: Kaavya Viswanathan (Aka the Alleged Harvard Plagiarist)

Remember Kaavya Viswanathan? She’s the Harvard graduate who, while still in high school, landed a two-book deal worth a reported $500,000. The first book, a young adult / chick-lit novel entitled How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, was published in April 2006, during Viswanathan’s sophomore year at Harvard.

And then things fell apart. To quote the blog Sepia Mutiny, “Kaavya Viswanathan got rich, got caught, and got ruined.” Shortly after the publication of Opal Mehta, the Harvard Crimson reported that various passages in the book appeared “strikingly similar” to portions of two young adult novels by Megan McCafferty.

Viswanathan was widely accused of plagiarizing — not just from McCafferty, but from Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot and Salman Rushdie. Her subsequent fall from grace, including the cancellation of her book and movie deals, made national and even international headlines (due to coverage back in her native India). She claimed that the similarities between her book and prior published works were unintentional, but given the number and extent of the apparently borrowed passages, some were incredulous. (For samples, see Wikipedia.)

After graduating from Harvard College in 2008, she went on to Georgetown Law, where she’s a member of the GULC class of 2011. Her arrival at Georgetown made Newsweek in February 2009:

Viswanathan is a first-year law student at Georgetown University, where Stephen Glass earned a J.D. after being fired from The New Republic for fabricating a series of articles….

How’d she manage to get accepted? Applicants can submit supplemental essays to explain themselves to the admissions committee, says Dean of Admissions Andrew Cornblatt. “It’s impossible to get amnesia about what we may have heard,” he says. “But in all cases we treat them just like any other applicant.”

It seems Georgetown isn’t the only institution treating Viswanathan “just like any other applicant.” Despite the tough fall recruiting season and her controversial past, Viswanathan, who just finished her 2L year, has landed a coveted summer associate position at a top law firm — one of Biglaw’s biggest and best names, in fact….

Viswanathan will be spending this summer in the New York office of Sullivan & Cromwell — one of the nation’s most prestigious and profitable law firms. She’ll be arriving at 125 Broad Street later this month.

Did S&C know of Viswanthan’s controversial past when they made her an offer? We can’t imagine they didn’t, given her distinctive name and the extensive news coverage her scandal received at the time, including articles in the New York Times and an appearance by Viswanathan on the Today Show.

That Viswanthan was able to land on her feet — actually, not just land on her feet, but land a job many law students would (literally) kill for — is encouraging. It just goes to show that it takes a lot, far more than most people realize, to sink someone’s career or ruin her life. People forgive, and people forget.

In the internet age, with its 24-hour news cycle, controversies burn hot but die out quickly. There are so many scandals today that no one scandal gets to remain on the newspaper front page, or at the top of the blog page, for very long; it quickly gets elbowed aside by the next scandal. And if you’re smart and savvy, which many people who get embroiled in controversy are, you can just repackage any unfortunate episode as a “learning experience.” Heck, you might even be able to get a book deal out of it.

(This is why “Crimson DNA,” the Harvard Law School student whose provocative email upset many people, still has a bright future ahead of her — perhaps including a SCOTUS clerkship with Justice Thomas. In fact, rather than feeling bad for Crimson DNA, you should envy her for her fame. As Samuel Johnson once said, “I would rather be attacked than unnoticed.” Or, if you prefer, take Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”)

So, back to Viswanathan and Sullivan & Cromwell. What department will she work in? Litigation might seem like a natural fit, given her interest in writing (and how she probably got a taste of litigation in dealing with the fallout from her scandal). But we suggest that she look into “general practice,” S&C-speak for transactional work. Clearly she has an aptitude for cutting and pasting taking an existing document and updating / adapting it.

Congratulations on making it to Sullivan & Cromwell, Kaavya, and good luck this summer. If all goes well, maybe you can write a novel about your experience: How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and (Still) Got an Offer.

Closure: The Chick-Lit Culprit [Newsweek]
Georgetown Law: Give me your poor, your tired, your plagiarists [Vox Populi]
How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life [Wikipedia]

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