Last fall they stepped into St. Thomas history – the students who make up the first class scheduled to graduate from the St. Thomas School of Law in 2004.
Those 112 students attend classes in Terrence Murphy Hall at the university’s downtown Minneapolis campus. Construction of a $34.6 million home for the School of Law began nearby in March 2002, and the structure will be ready for use by fall semester 2003.
In profile, the fall 2001 class included students from 14 states and two countries. Twelve had advanced degrees, ranging from masters to a Ph.D. They ranged in age from 19 to 52, with the median age being 26.
Grades and scores for the fall 2001 entering class included an average LSAT (Law School Admission Test) of 153; the average LSAT for the fall 2002 entering students was 155. (According to the Law Services “Interpretive Guide for LSAT Score Users,” the mean LSAT score for the June, October and December LSAT administrations in 2001 was a 150.9.)
Who are these students who chose a law school that requires them to devote at least 50 hours to public service and to participate in a mentor program which enables students to observe and discuss what practicing lawyers do?
Their career goals, ages and backgrounds are all different. But all have one thing in common. The law intrigues them.
Influencing change in society
At age 19, Obinna Chukwu was the youngest person in the 2001 entering class; he took college courses while still in high school and finished college in two years. A year later, his aims are idealistic but as complex as his view of the law:
“I chose law school because of the ability of lawyers to influence and command change in society,” Chukwu said. “I believe a lawyer is the closest thing to a priest in their ability to counsel and advise. St. Thomas, with its size and philosophy, fits well with my beliefs. I am getting the kind of legal education I need in this kind of academic community.”
The most interesting problem in law, he believes, “is how the law sometimes pretends that there is no difference between people in relation to the law and at the same time appreciates and accommodates progress that was a result of differences between people.”
He chose a Catholic school in part because his parents are Catholic and he was an altar boy. “Then, I always felt there was a lot I did not understand about the Catholic faith. Perhaps I chose St. Thomas because I want to continue learning about the faith and how it can work with the law,” he said. He is attending on a scholarship.
A native of Nigeria, Chukwu is a graduate of the University of North Texas, where he majored in economics, minored in English and was on the dean’s list. “My family consists of my parents, hardworking laborers, my brother, a junior in college, three wonderful sisters – the oldest a freshman in college.” Chukwu plays soccer and is in the process of forming a team (mostly St. Thomas law students) to play in an indoor league this winter. He also enjoys international music, jazz, art and traveling.
Last summer he went to Florence, Italy, on a study abroad program with the University of San Diego law school to study international negotiations law and international civil liberties. In the Twin Cities, his mentor is Steve Rau of Flynn, Gaskins and Bennett, whose area of expertise is business litigation.
“I have a passion for sports and entertainment but at the same time my family is the heart of my community,” Chukwu explained. “I love all my classes. My best grades were in contracts and torts and I like constitutional law as well. I hope to start with any type of law – but my future is in my community.”
Pursuing social justice
“Making a difference for good in people’s lives is why I chose law school,” said Jessica Sanborn, 25. She had been working with low-income families trying to find housing and saw how many obstacles, many of them legal, they faced.
“I chose St. Thomas because pursuing social justice is important to me and I wanted to be with people who believed in the same mission,” said the summa cum laude psychology graduate of Northwestern College in Roseville.
“Equal access and justice for the underrepresented poor and lower middle-class” is a problem in law that has encouraged her interest in public service opportunities. Her mentor is Anne Curme Shaw, corporate counsel at Ceridian Corp.
Balancing a healthy life is a challenge in law school. Sanborn, who is attending on a scholarship, said, “I haven’t worked this last year and I really admire those who have. Sometimes it’s hard to put so many other interests on hold while you’re plowing through your studies. I haven’t been able to spend as much time with my husband and with friends as I would have liked.” She serves on the student Law Review at St. Thomas.
As a volunteer with the Park Avenue Foundation, Sanborn and a friend lead a girls’ Bible study class “and it’s pretty exciting to me to get to know these girls and watch them grow,” she said. Sanborn hopes to develop a mentoring program with a local elementary school.
‘Law permeates our world’
“That first year of law school definitely helps one understand the true definition of balance and its complete, daily necessity,” said Nicole Zwieg, 23. “I work at school, study while in school and socialize all at the same time.”
The Minnesota native and oldest of three works in the law library and is active in student affairs, writing for the newsletter and serving as a student ambassador. Zwieg has done everything from shelve thousands of law books to research for professors – such as the impact that 9/11 had on American business transactions in international law.
A 2001 magna cum laude graduate of St. Thomas with a business major and journalism minor, Zwieg was named that year’s “Tommy” as outstanding senior. “I didn’t attend St. Thomas because it was Catholic,” she said. “I attended the undergraduate college and the School of Law because they encompass the catholic ideals of universality and a strong, moral code.
“Law permeates our world today and intrigues me. I want to be an informed member of our society not only for myself but also for others,” Zwieg said.
She has two mentors, Minnesota Tax Court Judge Kathleen Sanberg and Jill Prohofsky, a child support magistrate. Zwieg believes the “education I have received and continue to receive from St. Thomas, both inside and outside the classroom, will help make me the best person I can be for any job I encounter.”
How do countries interact?
“Knowledge of the law is particularly powerful because of its pervasive effects on our communities. Having such power will enable me to help others through my career and have a great positive impact on the world,” said Jed Iverson, 24, of St. Paul. “We are able to act deliberately and lead virtuous lives. The law dictates our political, economic, and often our social relationships with others.”
The most interesting problem in law, Iverson believes, is “the way in which countries coexist and interact,” and this is leading him to a possible career in constitutional or international law. His mentor last year was David Rowley, who works for the Minnesota Attorney General’s office.
Iverson grew up in Hastings and has an older brother and sister. His mother is a kindergarten teacher, his father a salesman. Iverson graduated from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a general management major. He spent more than four months studying development issues in India during studying abroad in college.
For him, “St. Thomas being a Catholic law school was incidental to its mission and [founding] Dean David Link’s vision of the school. I was attracted to St. Thomas by the different approach the school was taking to teaching the law and the excitement that the people working on starting the school sparked in me about its mission. I felt that something exciting and great was being done.”
Playing soccer and bass in a folk music group are some of his interests. He also is vice president of the student UST Law Assembly. Iverson founded and was co-chair of the St. Thomas chapter of the Minnesota Justice Foundation, volunteered with WATCH doing courtroom monitoring and with the Restorative Justice Program, and is a member of the International Law Society.
Achieving therapeutic outcomes
Lutheran pastor Michael Harnois had been struggling with how he would integrate his vocation as pastor with a life in the law. Then he saw an ad for the St. Thomas program in the Des Moines Register.
“It sounded as though it was made for me. St. Thomas wanted the School of Law to be ecumenical.”
At age 46, Harnois calls himself “one of the oldest survivors of the first-year class; there are four or five of us who are the same age.” He has two sons who live with their mother in Washburn, Iowa, where he still serves a parish on weekends. He is an honors graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh with a music major and a German minor, winner of a fellowship in German to Indiana University, and holder of a master of divinity degree from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.
Like other students, Harnois finds balancing school, work and family demanding. “However, everyone here, students and faculty alike, is very concerned about maintaining that balance, and faculty and administration proved to be very accommodating to special needs of students as they arose,” he said.
Harnois, who holds an amateur radio license, is a computer hacker and “enjoyer of the arts.” He had “thought about law school as a teenager but did not pursue it” until his experience with an excellent attorney in an employment discrimination case. “That gave me a powerful appreciation for the difference that good representation can make at a very difficult time in one’s life, so I took the LSAT.”
The most interesting problem in law, he thinks, “is how to balance zealous advocacy with the search for justice and truth and the achievement of therapeutic outcomes.” His career plans reflect that: “The only options I’ve eliminated so far are criminal law and practicing in a big firm. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. I’m still looking for areas in which I can practice both my vocations.” His mentor is John R. Schulz – of McGrann, Shea, Anderson, Carnival, Straughn, and Lamb – who has just finished a term as president of Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
A broad view of the legal profession
Public service is also the dream of Diane Piette, 46, who “has always wanted to be a lawyer. Always.
“As a little girl, I would watch ‘Perry Mason’ (the originals, not the reruns) waiting for that moment when Perry would stun the courtroom with his razor sharp cross-examination of the witness, thereby exposing the real killer to the jury. Ironically, I wanted to be a prosecutor, not a defense attorney like Perry.
“That dream of being a prosecutor still lives. However, I am currently a volunteer clerk for the federal public defender’s office in Minneapolis. My mentor, Hank Shea, an assistant U.S. attorney specializing in white-collar crime, felt it was important that I understand the challenges faced by the ‘guys on the other side.’ It has been a priceless experience.”
A Texan whose father was a Baptist minister, Piette has lived with her husband and two daughters in Minnesota for more than four years. She graduated from the University of Houston with a journalism major. She became a television sports anchor and later established her own business as a video producer and writer. But watching her daughter at a high school mock trial competition “rekindled my long-held passion for the law.” Now she helps out with that high school team.
Accepted by Hamline, William Mitchell and St. Thomas, she chose St. Thomas because “the professors had real-world experience and came from all over the country. I knew it was vital that students be exposed to a broad coast-to-coast view of the legal profession as opposed to a ‘Midwestern’ version,” said Piette, who has lived and worked in five states.
Her main problem with law is that someone “needs to put the obtuseness and indecipherability of the legal language into plain language.” Criminal Law, Property and Contracts were her first-year classes. She found all her professors “dynamic” but when pressed, chose “Professor Jerry Organ as one of the best. I walked into Property prepared to hate the class but he is such a dynamite teacher that I ended up loving it. He tied property law into our everyday life and made it come alive.”
Balancing her life is possible with a calendar and a sense of humor, Piette says. A member of the Law Review, she cites her extracurricular activities as “those of the typical parent, cheering on daughters in softball, volleyball, basketball, and track events.”
Being a single parent of an 8-year-old daughter caused Saran B. Jenkins, 30, to pursue a master’s in education at St. Thomas instead of a law degree.
“But when St. Thomas opened the law school, I knew the time had come to pursue my life’s dream,” Jenkins said. “There is never enough time, and sometimes I feel guilty about that, but luckily I have an extremely supportive family which has helped me out tremendously.”
She did not “seek out a Catholic law school. The best way I can explain it is that this obviously is where God wanted me to be,” said the graduate of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, who majored in English and minored in pre-law.
Jenkins serves on the executive board of the National Black Law Student Association and is part of the UST Law newsletter staff, as well as the Multicultural Law Student Association. Her most interesting classes have been Criminal Law and Torts, but Organ is her favorite professor.
Her mentors are Ken Nickolai, chief administrative law judge in Minneapolis, and John Sands, retired judge in Ramsey County. “They have been invaluable,” she explained. “They are very informative and I gained a lot of outside knowledge beyond the classroom.
“The disproportionate justice which is representative in almost every area of law is one of its most interesting problems,” in her opinion. Jenkins is still exploring career plans: “I am considering entering politics and I also plan to enter a field where I can best utilize a J.D. and Ed.D.”
‘Check back with me in 20 years’
“Choosing a law school was extremely difficult for me,” said Joel Schroeder, 24, an honors graduate in Spanish and political science from Washington University in St. Louis. During college, Schroeder, who is from Bloomington, worked for three summers at different law firms, first in the copy room, then as a paralegal and then as a library assistant. “That really gave me an opportunity to see the profession from the inside and to make an educated deci- sion about attending law school,” he said.
“From the beginning, St. Thomas’ mission of service appealed to me, to who I am and who I want to be,” explained Schroeder, who taught English at a Jesuit school in a small agricultural village in Spain, volunteered at the Legal Aid Society last year, and wants to organize a service trip to Latin America with students from the other three area law schools. He is active in student government and serves on the Law Review.
A deciding factor was the financial resources St. Thomas offered. “So many people leave law school swamped in six-figure debt. I think it is a testament to the mission of St. Thomas that many of us will leave with a much lower debt and others will have opportunities to decrease it by the loan forgiveness program. Less debt gives us the flexibility to dictate our own futures,” Schroeder explained.
“Bringing legal access to the least fortunate in our society” is the most critical issues for our profession. “I think my classmates will always be cognizant of this issue and giving of our time and education to help in some small way, no matter if we are working for a large firm in New York or a human rights organization in Uganda.”
A committed and dynamic faculty has impressed Schroeder, whose favorite courses were Contracts and Civil Procedure “mainly because I could decipher a few hard and fast rules (a rarity in the law) and put my arms around those subjects. Father Reggie Whitt was one of my favorite teachers. He used the traditional Socratic method and got excited about intentional torts, contributory negligence and assumption of risk. I always felt ‘on edge’ in his classroom. Not just any answer would do; he wanted a logical and coherent reply.” Schroeder’s mentor is Thomas Hatch of Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi.
He chose to attend a Catholic law school because, “despite its flaws, the Catholic Church has a lot to teach our world. No other institution has been so permanent and present in modern civilization. As lawyers, I think we will play an important part in reforming our church and finding a balance between what is important tradition and what is not. Change must happen when there are no logical or Biblical reasons for preventing it.”
His career plans indicate a range of interests: “I would like to clerk for a judge after graduation. My supervising attorney at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., where I worked as a law clerk for the Civil Division last summer, sold me on the experience. Then I’d like to work for a firm in Minneapolis or Chicago, maybe run for office one day. I have a lot of interests. Check back with me in 20 years.”