Taking Uncommon Paths to W&L

A law student with child

Don Bellah, a Former DOD Intelligence Officer, is
a member of the W&L Class of 2020.

By: Georgi Pisano-Goetz, 1L
Staff Writer

The average first-year law student is 24 years old, so perhaps it is not surprising that conversation around the law school bounces back and forth between an over analysis of class and college football. However, if you manage to get past the classics questions—“How are you?”  and “Where are you from?”—you may find yourself speaking to someone who didn’t spend last summer as a paralegal. Every class has at least one, the unconventional student. Maybe law school wasn’t their first choice, or maybe it just happened to be a winding road to W&L. These students have more experience to offer their future clients and, thank goodness, some new conversation topics.

3L Thomas Bishop has worked with corn thugs (as an elementary school teacher), as a car salesman, as a cemetery plot salesman, and as a sandwich artist. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2005 and spent eight years nearby in Richmond teaching elementary school, a job that he loved. When contemplating a graduate degree, Thomas shadowed the principal of the school to see if educational administration was the path for him. It most certainly was not; administration meant more phone calls and e-mails, and less time with the students. Still interested in public service, Thomas turned to law school where he now spends plenty of time with students as a Burks Scholar.

2L Douglas Malenfant graduated in 2010 from the University of Florida with a degree in History. He met his wife while studying abroad in the U.K. and went on to receive his Master’s at the University of Nottingham. The two of them moved to Singapore where they unexpectedly undertook and rapidly expanded the family restaurant business. When Mrs. Malenfant was accepted into a three-year PhD program, the timing was serendipitous for Doug to pursue his three-year law degree. The idea had been bouncing around since undergrad, and he even considered attending in Singapore. For Doug, it was a professor during his undergraduate years who encouraged him and others to get involved in public service that convinced him that law school was the path for him.

1L Don Bellah spent over 30 years with the Department of Defense as an Intelligence Officer. He won’t (and can’t) go into specifics, but he has plenty of anecdotes from his time serving in Germany, Afghanistan, and stateside. For Don, it was a 2015 Last Week Tonight special about public defenders that inspired him to go to law school. As Jon Oliver spoke to the dearth not only of defenders but also of funds to pay them, something clicked for Don. He was eligible for retirement, but he wasn’t done serving. Don saw his financial security as an opportunity to help even where there may not be a large financial payout.

There are distinctive students from every class, but perhaps someone best known across the years is John O’Keefe, aka Sills, resident library guidance and writing Burks scholar to the 1Ls. It has been 21 years since Sills graduated from our neighbor, VMI. In that time, he has received his Master’s degree from the University of Leeds, taught history and religion, advised students on making persuasive speeches (sound familiar?), and coached lacrosse and sailing – sometimes even to students he would later meet again at W&L. While still passionate about  teaching, the same subject began to grow mundane to Sills. He networked with his student’s parents, consulted his wife, and decided to take the leap, leaving his teaching position and applying to Virginia law schools.

In this day and age, it’s expected that you may have more than one career. Many of W&L’s students are just getting started. Taking the scenic route to law school, however, can lead to some fascinating adventures as well. These are only four of the countless unique students that populate the halls of Washington & Lee. Take a minute away from the minutiae of law school to get to know your fellow students and you may be surprised what you find out.

Categories: Community