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Legal Eagles: How Military Vets Navigate Law School

November 11, 2018

Northwestern Law student veterans

From fighter plane cockpits to the courtroom – a look at the lives of veterans who pursue a new career path in law.
By Claire Zulkey

Surviving the first year of law school is hard enough before you add commuting to Great Lakes military base, doing drills, watching recorded lectures, and getting exams rescheduled due to conflicts with military orders. But that was life for naval reservist Davion Chism (JD-MBA ’18) as she embarked on her degree at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. To navigate the chaos, Chism drew inspiration where she could. In her case, it was Professor Bruce Markell’s Contracts class.

“He was always putting things in perspective, saying, ‘Look, you signed up to be here,’” Chism says. She found a life lesson in the topic of damages. “You want things to work out, but they don’t always, so you figure something else out.” This classroom reminder helped motivate Chism when she felt overwhelmed by her responsibilities. “You thought you were going to study but you fell asleep and you have to be on base next weekend? Just figure out a backup,” she says. Law school and the military, it turns out, are not that different. “It’s overwhelming, but take a deep breath and push forward. You can do this.”

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Kendrick Washington II (JD ’10) during basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1995.

Law students like Chism, who come from the military, tend to be equipped with a big-picture perspective that lends itself to the stresses of law school. Margarita Botero (JD ’16) served as a medic in the Air Force from 2009 to 2013. “I was a first responder; we were faced with life and death situations,” she says. “Sometimes you lose people; sometimes you lose people you know.” These experiences grounded her during 1L finals. “I remember seeing other students crying or stressed out — when you go from dealing with people’s lives to potentially getting a B, it wasn’t a big deal to me.”

Veterans in the Northwestern Law community see a legal career as a natural path after service to the nation. “People in the service feel a little constrained sometimes. The law is a great place to be free from those constraints and creatively put together solutions,” says Kendrick Washington II (JD ’10), who enrolled in Northwestern Law at 32 after several years serving as chief of media relations for the Army in Hawaii. Today, Washington is an adjunct professor at the Law School, teaching Children in Conflict with the Law, and a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education. “People who are committed to the service of others are, in my opinion, the perfect lawyers,” he says.

Botero, like Washington, entered law school after studying journalism in the military because she wanted to pursue work where she could more directly advocate for other people. “In the military I had a great boss who always said I was great at arguing,” she says. “He suggested that maybe law school or politics would be a good fit for me.”

But the transition from military life to student life, especially at an urban law school with a vocal student body, can be difficult. Fortunately, service people at Northwestern Law have support. Botero leaned on the Veterans Law Association (VLA) while she adjusted to life as a civilian in a major city like Chicago. “I moved to America [from Colombia] and joined the military right after [in 2009], so [law school] was a culture shock. In the military we’re stationed in very small cities.” In the VLA, she found other veterans who helped maintain a semblance of the nearly familial support system she had in the Air Force — veterans who helped her feel less like a fish out of water. “The military is a very conservative environment and law school is a very progressive environment,” which she says was another cultural shift. While she appreciated new perspectives, in the VLA she could comfortably speak with other students whose viewpoints were more like her own.

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Craig Sanders (JD ’17) with his son, Craig Sanders III, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, in 2014.

Chism, who is now an associate at Kirkland & Ellis, could also breathe a sigh of relief — or get a pep talk — when she commiserated with her network of Northwestern veterans during her “mess” of 1L. “I think no matter what your background is, no matter what branch you are, there’s just a commonality, certain silly jokes you make,” she says. She liked listening to the speakers the VLA brought in, and their talks helped her decide how long she wanted to remain in the reserves. “Hearing these speakers discuss how they transitioned out of the military or went back in, it was great to get those different perspectives.”

There are some more minor culture clashes, too, when a veteran enters law school. Craig Sanders (JD ’17) discovered one big difference between exams and military briefings. “I was taught [in the Air Force that] if you can say something in three words and you used five, expect to be debriefed on that and never do it again,” says Sanders, who came to Northwestern Law after more than 10 years as an Air Force fighter aviator. “Law school exams are exactly the opposite. I had to learn to say, ‘Let the fingers fly and the word vomit flow, and keep on trucking.’”

And don’t get service people started on civilian law students’ idea of punctuality. Jason Moehlmann (JD ’17), who enrolled at Northwestern Law after serving as a Navy lieutenant, was surprised whenever he saw classmates stroll in after a lecture had begun. “The Navy’s mantra is, if you’re early, you’re on time, and if you’re on time, you’re late.”

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Jason Moehlmann (JD '17), right, with Commander Randy Yaden, after being sworn in as an officer in 2008.

Jose Basabe (JD ’20) started law school in 2017 after 15 years of active duty as an Air Force intelligence officer. As the VLA’s current president, he wants to improve the group’s connection to the wider Chicago-area community by providing legal assistance to veterans in need, such as “green card veterans” who are in danger of deportation. “We can’t let things happen where someone who served our country is treated as a stranger,” Basabe says.

Assisting aspiring veteran lawyers is of equal importance. In fact, Northwestern Law has a history of helping service members get their law degrees. Mike Osajda (JD ’76) enrolled in the Marine Corps in 1968, after his 1L year. At the time, the Law School assured all students who were leaving for the service that they would be guaranteed automatic re-admission once their time was served. Osajda, who took advantage of that opportunity after five years of active duty, was so inspired by that support that in 2018 he made a generous bequest to Northwestern Law. “Given the political climate of the time, the feeling of the populace -— especially in university education — was to toss [service members] aside. But Northwestern bucked that trend by offering to take us back without any problem,” Osajda says. “The school went out of its way to help us out.”

Today, the Law School offers scholarship assistance to service members through the Frances & Earl Perry Memorial Veterans Scholarship and the Barnett Howard & Williams Military Veteran Scholarship, as well as the Post-9/11 GI Bill Yellow Ribbon Program. The money from the GI Bill helped Botero pay for her books, housing, and part of her tuition while she was at Northwestern. “Not having to get loans for those kinds of costs was huge,” she says, “That helped me graduate without having a huge amount of debt.”

One of the VLA’s priorities is to make sure Northwestern Law is known as a veteran-friendly school, ensuring, for instance, that VLA members accompany prospective military students who visit campus. “Going back to the Vietnam era, there was a lot of tension between activists and military. That’s hung around in some law schools,” says Moehlmann. While he says this isn’t an issue at Northwestern Law, he adds that the VLA’s mission is to illustrate that “our job was going and fighting wars, but we’re still people.” The VLA, which is open to civilians as well as veterans, hosts social events like monthly happy hours and organizes larger events, like panels featuring JAG scholars to talk about veterans’ issues and the law.

The importance of promoting such an understanding of veterans is underscored in some of the uncomfortable questions and assumptions that servicemembers with law degrees have faced. “I have had people ask me, ‘Do you know how to think for yourself? Can you do this without someone telling you exactly what to do?’” says Washington. Once, he was asked on a job interview if he’d ever shot someone. “Fortunately, I hadn’t. But as I later explained to the folks in career services, if I had, that could have been a very traumatic question.”

Sanders says he hopes to help dispel some civilian assumptions that vets are either “Captain America or on the edge of sanity.” He wants hiring managers to consider, while weighing a veteran candidate, that “he’s probably more adept at rolling with flexible assignments, getting yelled at without weeping on the ground, a little better at embracing the gray areas, and not saying ‘I wasn’t given a delineated task and I don’t know what to do.’”

Overall, veteran lawyers feel that they are seen and valued for their breadth of experience. Moehlmann, an associate at Latham & Watkins, says his time driving warships like the 844-foot amphibious assault ship the USS Essex gave him a leg up during interviews, helping to demonstrate that he was comfortable working with higher ups. “I’ve had captains and commodores drilling me about operational plans — I can come in and a partner can grill me about this legal issue I do research on.”

He is grateful that, in turn, he is in a position to give back to the military community. “Latham partners with the National Veterans Legal Service Project and does a lot of pro bono work helping vets get access to medical care through the VA and representing veterans with disabilities who think they were mistreated by the VA or by their branch of service,” he says, adding that firms with veteran associates are better equipped to counsel clients who may suffer from PTSD.

Sanders, who just completed a judicial clerkship and will soon join Jones Day as an associate, draws direct parallels between his time in the legal world to the 2013 experience of preparing for a combat flight. “I know we’re on the ground and we have to fight combat sorties tomorrow, but the stops in between are invisible,” he says. “The ability to take a starting point A to finishing point B, with little to no guidance, and just get it done, that’s going to help with the nature of law.”