Adventurer in Law The latest turn in the winding career path of Christopher Riano ’10L finds him leading a national effort to improve civic education and engagement.
Christopher Riano ’10L acknowledges an “adventurous streak.”
That’s one way to characterize his career path from living out of his Dodge Dynasty in a Pittsburgh park to modeling in the New York fashion industry to opening his own New York City law firm to serving as the youngest general counsel for a New York state agency to being elected inaugural chair of the New York State Bar Association’s LGBTQ Law Section to tackling his latest challenge as president of the Center for Civic Education.
While he punctuates a conversation about his journey with “lucky” and “fortunate,” surely “fearless” is equally apt.
Riano was in his second year studying engineering at Carnegie Mellon when he had to live in his car for a time. A year later, he packed two suitcases and, with $400 in his pocket, boarded an Amtrak train for New York with the dream of becoming a model. And he made it, too.
“Fortunately, at the height of doing well as a model, I recognized you cannot do that forever,” he says. “Somehow, in my 19-year-old thought processes, I realized I should go back to school.”
He transferred to Columbia University, dividing his time between modeling and classes before enrolling full-time in the fall of 2005. He was bound for business school before he won an election as chairman of the student affairs caucus of the university senate. He found himself representing Columbia’s entire student body during the nationally renowned free speech controversy that roiled the university.
Based on that experience, Riano says, “I became fascinated by the intricacies of how government works and how the law functions. I knew then law was a better path.”
Riano chose W&L partly because of former Dean Rodney Smolla’s constitutional law focus, partly because he knew that he’d have a chance to build his own experience at a small school. That proved truer than he’d even hoped when, as a 2L, he worked on real-life jury trials with the Montgomery County (Maryland) State’s Attorneys Office.
“Normally only third-year students are permitted to make court appearances,” says Mary Natkin, emerita clinic professor who recalls Riano’s uncommon experience in her externship class. “The prosecuting office moved for permission for Christopher to appear. I honestly don’t remember anything about the particulars. I specifically recall his participation and presentation in the seminar, which were fabulous, and his supervisor’s evaluations, which were equally so.”
For his part, Riano remembers one serious felony case when he sat alongside the senior prosecutor opposite defense attorneys from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, in D.C.
“I was involved in the whole trial, including the appeal. It was amazing to be able to do that as a second-year law student. Just amazing,” he says.
Since he’d become certified in Maryland, Riano spent his 3L years continuing to work at an internship in Washington. He praises Natkin for allowing him to build his own program. “The experience trained me in ways that made it easy to launch my career,” says Riano, who was awarded the Randal P. Bezanson Award for outstanding contributions to diversity in the law school community.
After a post-graduate year clerking for Judge John Philip Miller ’73L of the Baltimore Circuit Court, Riano opened his own firm in New York City. He was 25 and was responsible for everything from bringing in business to balancing the books to managing client expectations.
“They don’t teach all that in law school,” he says. “But that was part of the fun. It gave me a different set of tools and helped propel the other parts of my legal career.”
After a few years, Riano joined Drohan Lee LLP as a partner and head of the Strategic Practice Group. In the meantime, he’d begun lecturing in constitutional law and government at Columbia and even chaired Columbia’s Rules of University Conduct Committee where he was soon embroiled in the university’s free speech issues all over again, albeit from a different side.
Though he loved private practice, Riano left in 2016 for a series of positions in New York state government — first as an Administrative Law Judge, then general counsel to The New York State Liquor Authority, and finally as an assistant counsel to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
During this time, he was also co-authoring a book, “Marriage Equality: From Outlaw to In-Laws,” with William N. Eskridge of Yale Law School. Published in August 2020 by Yale University Press, this definitive history of same-sex marriage equality in the U.S. not only provides the legal, political, and religious background to the debate but also tells the deeply personal stories of the individuals involved.
“What we’ve done is weave together various different stories from the pro-marriage equality standpoint and the anti-marriage equality standpoint,” Riano says. “We celebrate marriage equality but, at the same time, give proper voice to those who didn’t necessarily support the movement. I’m exceptionally proud that we’ve had anti-marriage equality activists give book talks right alongside us. That makes me feel we were really and truly fair in our telling of the story.”
Riano’s most recent adventure may be the most daunting yet considering the country’s current political climate. Riano took over leadership of the Center for Civic Education last June, mere days after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and in the midst of the contentious presidential election. He is only the second person to lead the organization in its 55-year history. Six months after being named president, Riano was fielding media calls asking for guidance on how teachers could help students make sense of the Capitol siege.
The Center for Civic Education is the largest and most respected of the nonprofits that traditionally target K through 12 students and teachers with programs such as “We the People,” a national competition for upper elementary and secondary students designed to promote engaged civic competence.
Riano didn’t need the recent crises to know that the U.S. has work to do in educating its citizens — of all ages. “I am fortunate to be leading this historic organization when there is renewed focus on ensuring that we do better as a country in civic education,” Riano says. “It’s never too early and it’s never too late to start a lifelong conversation to celebrate the strengths and repair the weaknesses in our democratic republic.”
And Riano is careful to indicate that goes beyond to a 10th grade civics or history class or even a constitutional law class in law school. He labels this as moment for a “cradle to career and beyond” approach because, as he says, “we don’t just have civic moments in the classroom. We have them every day and at every age.”
To have a stable government, he says, every American has to understand what government does and how each of us can participate in that work. “That doesn’t just mean at the ballot box, either,” he says. “That means 365 days a year.”
Everything that has transpired, even in the few months since he joined the Center, has reinforced for Riano how formidable this latest adventure will be. “I do not fear the unknown,” says Riano. “In fact, I enjoy the challenge that comes with setting a goal that is important to me and then achieving it.”