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‘Open Your Eyes, America’

Emily Renzelli


WRITTEN BY APRIL JOHNSTON

Alumna Emily Renzelli was named to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list for Law and Policy. 

Of all the impressive things Emily Renzelli, BA ’08, Political Science and Philosophy, has done in her life – and they include teaching college classes, clerking for a federal judge and fighting AIDS in Africa – maybe nothing will astonish fellow Mountaineers more than this: She got a perfect score on her very first exam from Professor Robert DiClerico. 

So unusual is this feat that the legendary political science professor sought Renzelli out to offer his congratulations and his support. It’s a scenario that would play out repeatedly during Renzelli’s time at West Virginia University. Professors, administrators, and the guy at the study abroad office, all recognized her potential. Those little encouragements, along with a few well-timed nudges, transformed Renzelli from a sheltered young girl who never ventured out of Appalachia to an envy-inducing citizen of the world. 

And, lately, that world has been awfully welcoming. 

Renzelli was just named to Forbes  magazine’s 30 Under 30 list in Law and Policy and she’s about to wrap up a clerkship with Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the last stop for cases headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though Renzelli first declared her intention to practice law in first grade, in an amateur video recording her parents claim to still possess, she’s had an unusual path so far. Most of the country’s top attorneys find a firm and fight until they’ve secured a partnership. 

Renzelli – partly thanks to a killer instinct, partly thanks to graduating University of Virginia law school in the midst of the recession – took an internship with the U.S. Justice Department, a short stint in private practice with Jackson Kelly and a teaching gig at WVU before clerking for district and appellate courts. 

“My trajectory is not typical,” Renzelli says. “I think it makes people’s heads spin.” 

Clerking, where young lawyers serve as judge’s councilors examining cases and writing opinions, has offered Renzelli a holistic view of the law.

She’s reviewed a wide range of cases, including tax, civil, international and criminal. It’s also given her a firsthand view of how the courts work, which is good since she’s hoping to spend the rest of her career fighting cases inside of them. 

As with most people who reach her level of success, Renzelli has had to deal with a few haters along the way. 

“The most hurtful thing to me is that people are surprised I’m from West Virginia,” Renzelli says. “’But you’re so smart and so successful.’ I don’t consider myself an outlier. I studied with some of the most talented and intelligent people I ever met at WVU.” 

Flipping through the bios of her fellow Forbes 30 Under 30 winners, she felt some vindication. She wasn’t the only one from West Virginia, the only WVU alum or the only first-generation college graduate. 

“I feel like we’re helping to break stereotypes,” Renzelli says. “Just because you’re under 30 or from a certain place doesn’t mean you can’t achieve success. 

“Open your eyes, America. Youth can do it and people from West Virginia can do it, too.” 

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