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Department: Comparative Literature

Montagu Comparative Literature

Alex Montagu ’87

General Counsel, Lipper, Inc.

Arriving undecided

I arrived at Princeton from a boarding school in England called Bryanston. In England, you have to choose a single subject to study at university, which in turn dictates the three or four subjects you choose for the “A” levels. Unsure about what to read at university, I was sent off to Princeton to make up my mind.

I started off with advanced math and organic chemistry in my freshman year. By the beginning of sophomore year I was already realizing that I was not cut out for the sciences. My parents were of the view that I should study something “useful.” Perhaps as a final concession to parental wishes (after all, they were paying!) or perhaps because I really did enjoy chemistry and biology, I enrolled in a biochemistry class in the fall of sophomore year. In the same semester I was also in a literature class in which we read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most extraordinary works of literature I’ve ever read. I hadn’t even gotten to the trial scene in the book before I dropped the biochemistry class. It was the last science class I took.

Today, the choice I made is an obvious one, but it was far from so at the time. I went on to major in comparative literature, one of the best decisions I have ever made. To me, comp lit was so different from the drudgery of studying math or science or even, later on, the law. These were books that I would read anyway, for fun, and at the same time I got my degree! Other than that pesky thesis that required me to read all of Proust’s La Recherche, comp lit was not only fun, but allowed me to learn about life and art from a variety of perspectives. You even get a few lessons in love that might come in handy a few years down the road! These books might be fiction, but behind the fiction are the same human experiences—love, money, jealousy, betrayal, worship, idolatry—that we will all experience, in one form or another, along the way.

A big help to my career

From a practical perspective, my major in comp lit gave me good analytical and writing skills that have been invaluable to me in my career as a lawyer. To be successful, lawyers have to be able to take large amounts of information and explain them clearly and concisely to their audience. In addition, lawyers have to be able to understand people’s problems, whether personal or financial, and be able to explain the legal framework applicable to the problem at hand.

I went on to read law at Cambridge, then to Harvard Law School for a J.D. I worked for a number of years at the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. Today, I am the general counsel of Lipper, where I handle the company’s legal work and manage our parent company’s trademark portfolio. My work involves drafting, reviewing, and advising on contractual and commercial issues concerning the sale and licensing of financial information in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. My ability to read and write French and German has been very helpful with our work in France, Switzerland, and Germany. I wish I spoke and read Chinese! The beauty of comparative literature is that you can work in any two languages and the professors are there to guide and support you. In an increasingly global economy, the ability to communicate in more than one language is hugely important. Equally important is to understand different cultures and different approaches to business. Business law is as much about people as it is about documents. The more you understand and can relate to different people, especially across multiple cultures, the more successful you’re likely to be. Can you really afford to design and sell an investment product only in the U.S., when your competitors are selling theirs to affluent Japanese investors? A French company may not want to negotiate a contract in English; while undoubtedly you will be more successful with that client if you can negotiate and draft in French, even if you don’t speak French, your awareness of French culture and history through reading books such as Madame Bovary will not only inform your approach to that client, but may well help close the deal over a glass of Margaux.