Law school final exams next month might seem like the worst thing in the world to some law students.
Not Eric Gilliland.
He has a different way of thinking about law school after being in the U.S. Army Special Operations for six years, deploying to Jordan and Turkey. Veterans who have deployed and seen combat have learned to cope with “mountains of stress,” he said.
“Our perspective allows us to look beyond what most law students have experienced,” said Gilliland, a student at College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Many of us are more disciplined and capable of handling far more responsibility.”
But those skills don’t always translate on a law school application. Admissions officers may pass over applicants with military backgrounds, failing to appreciate how they can become competitive law students and strong lawyers.
That’s where Service to School comes in. The nonprofit helps veterans parlay their military service to gain entry into the nation’s top law schools and other higher-education institutions.
Service to School’s applicants have made it into the highest-rated law schools in the nation, including Columbia Law School, Stanford Law School, Yale Law School, Georgetown University Law Center and the University of Texas School of Law.
Here’s how it works: Veterans who want to apply for law school go to Service to School’s website to complete an online form that asks about their military service, LSAT scores, law schools they’re interested in, and more. The program has a network of about 80 current law students and recent law graduates from top 14 law schools who function as “ambassadors” and volunteer to work with the applicants.
Many ambassadors formerly were law applicants who used the nonprofit’s services themselves, then turned around to volunteer with fellow veterans. Other ambassadors are law students or lawyers with military backgrounds who learned about Service to School on their own and then signed up. Service to School’s law admissions team emails ambassadors each week with a list of new applicants and the ambassadors respond to ask for a pairing with applicants.
Ropes & Gray associate Josh Carroll in Boston has volunteered as a Service to School ambassador for more than three years and worked with a dozen vets. A 2016 Duke Law School graduate, he said only four veterans were there when he attended, making them a tight-knit group.
“I feel obligated to leave the door open and help someone else through,” he said.
Carroll said he answers questions about how to study for the LSAT, pick a law school or practice area, and how to write a personal statement for an application. Veterans need help to translate what they’ve done on a battlefield so that a law school admissions officer can appreciate it.
Now as a young associate in big law, Carroll explained he spends a lot of long nights in the Ropes & Gray office. His military service—12 years as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force active duty and reserve service—helps put the burden into a wider perspective.
“No one is shooting at me. I’m not thousands of miles from home. I’m not in a combat zone. I’m in a nice, air-conditioned office overlooking Boston,” said Carroll, now a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. “It enables you to handle it.”
Michael Stinnett-Kassoff, co-director of Service to School’s law admissions program, said that once they clear the application-process hurdle, military veterans can contribute much to the law school community.
“Most of us are automatically leaders from being in the military. That definitely translates into the classroom. We’re also used to helping each other out,” said Stinnett-Kassoff, who spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, including two deployments to the Persian Gulf and another off of Japan’s coast. “When finals come around, the veterans in my school are definitely calmer.”
Service to School, Stinnett-Kassoff said, also addresses one of the biggest problems plaguing law schools: a lack of diversity. He said that post-9/11 veterans are diverse in race, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds, and they’re comfortable working with diverse people in the most stressful situations.
“Not only will this diversity benefit the law schools and the other students, but the legal profession will benefit from this diversity at large once these veterans graduate and begin their careers,” Stinnett-Kassoff said.
A student at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia, Stinnett-Kassoff said that Service to School’s main aim is getting veterans into the best law schools possible, but along the way, the nonprofit also steers applicants away from “predatory” law schools, low-ranked and unaccredited institutions where graduates’ bar pass and employment rates are low. He noted that most veterans pay for law school using their military educational benefits under the GI Bill or the Vocational Rehabilitation Program. There’s a moral obligation to use those tax dollars wisely, he said.
“We don’t want veterans using their hard-earned benefits to attend a law school that ends up not preparing them for the bar, getting them a job, or goes out of business,” he said.
Demand for Service to School’s services has been growing. It launched its law admissions program in 2014, and 62 veterans applied for help on their law school applications, 21 of them followed through to get paired with ambassadors, and 12 finally matriculated into law schools.
In 2016, 309 veterans signed up and 108 were matched with ambassadors. At least 45 of the applicants won admission to law schools, although Service to School bets that the number is actually higher since not everyone completes exit interviews.
Translating military jargon on applications is a key way the organization provides help. Stinnett-Kassoff said technical military terms on a resume or personal statement get changed into “civilian language,” and military jobs are explained to show how the experience will apply in law school.
Lauren Morina spent four years in the U.S. Navy as a cryptologic intelligence analyst, deploying twice to the Horn of Africa, and a third time in the Baltic region. Military service separated her from other applicants in the law school application process, but she had to tell her story to her advantage. Her ambassador emphasized how important it was to show her strength in professionalism, her ability to deal with stressful situations, and skill in managing large projects.
“I think I would have had success in gaining admission to some law schools, but because of Service to School, I think a lot of schools gave my application a second look,” she said. “My application really told a story about who I was, where I was coming from and what skills and talents I would bring to the law school and ultimately the legal profession.”
Her ambassador also connected her with other veterans at each of the law schools where she applied. She visited the schools, and her fellow veterans took her on tours and even to a class. She learned that some of her favored schools might align closer with her values coming out of military service. That’s why she picked a small law school, Washington and Lee.
“There’s more emphasis on closer relationships with classmates and professors, and it was something I was very familiar with from my military service. Working in teams, you become close to people surrounding you, and there’s benefits of that when going through something challenging and difficult,” she said.
Angela Morris is a freelance reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @AMorrisReports