Kevin Kirby, north of Kandahar, on December 30, 2009

Kevin Kirby, north of Kandahar, on December 30, 2009

As an Army engineer tasked with clearing bombs from key roads, Kevin Kirby oversaw 33 fellow service members and millions of dollars of equipment during his first 11-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.

It was a hefty responsibility for a 23-year-old just a few years out of the United Stated Military Academy, but one that helped Kirby develop leadership skills, calm under pressure and attention to detail—all qualities he hopes will help him land a job when he graduates from New York University School of Law in 2017.

“Typically, veterans have at least some leadership experience,” Kirby said. “You might not get that with someone who went to college and then straight on to law school.”

How best to leverage military experience into legal employment is a major focus of a new national consortium of law school veterans groups that launched last week during a conference at Georgetown University Law Center.

The National Federation of Law Student Veterans seeks to unite the dozens of student veteran groups cropping up on law campuses across the country in an effort to educate legal employers on the benefits of hiring veterans. The federation also aims to lobby law school administrators for scholarships, share ideas on veteran-centric programming and public service opportunities, and establish a national network of attorney veterans to offer support and employment connections.

The sustained conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq has produced one of the largest cohorts of veterans since World War II, more than 3.7 million since 9/11, and an increasing number of them are landing in law school—due in part to improved tuition benefits from the government, said Philip Lockwood, who graduated last month from Georgetown University Law Center.

Lockwood, a former member of the Canadian military who served as co-president of the Georgetown Military Law Society for two years, helped organize a two-day conference on June 24 and 25 that brought together 35 veterans from 10 top-ranked law schools to discuss issues ranging from how to advocate for veterans within law schools to how veterans should address their military backgrounds in job interviews.

The inaugural conference, which was limited to the top 14 law schools as ranked by U.S. News & World Report in order to make it manageable for organizers, gave way to the idea of a national organization. Plans call for an annual conference for all law school veteran groups going forward.

“We want to ensure that law school are supporting these students in the best way possible, but also that employers have the insight into what makes military veteran law students attractive candidates for employment,” said Tripp Zanetis, co-president of the Stanford Law Veterans Organization and a former search and rescue helicopter pilot with the New York Army National Guard.

Employers often recognize that veterans have leadership experience, but that’s not necessarily the first thing they look for when hiring fledgling attorneys, Lockwood said, noting that many employers prize research and writing skills above all. The federation will make the case to law firms, judges and government agencies that veterans are well-prepared to handle the rigors of law practice.

“You find yourself in challenging, stressful positions in the military where you really have to learn leadership skills and hone them,” said Joe Gookin, a third-year student at the University of Michigan Law School and member of the Michigan Law Veterans Society who deployed to Kuwait with the Army National Guard. “I think that relates directly to the legal practice because you’re going to have deadlines and you’re going to work on teams with other attorneys.”

Rachel Baylis, an associate at Arnold & Porter, said the project management and prioritization skills she gained during her six years as a Navy surface war officer managing Tomahawk Cruise missile programs are integral to her transactional law practice, where she often works with large attorney teams. Her military experience has also made her more comfortable making decisions.

“Making judgment calls and having to make assessments on limited information is something I did a lot in the military,” said Baylis, who founded Arnold & Porter’s veterans and affiliates affinity group in 2014. “Now, in dealing with clients, they want an answer to a question and you may not know everything you’d like to know, but you have to use your judgment. I think that’s a skill that’s acquired in practice—and another key component to what veterans bring to the table.”

Employers Take Note

Some employers are taking note. Attendance was up at the second annual Veteran’s Legal Career Fair in April, with 35 companies and firms looking to connect with about 150 job-seeking veterans and their spouses, said Nikiforos Mathews, a former judge advocate in the Army Reserve and a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which founded the event.

“I think firms are finding that veterans have certain attractive attributes and characteristics,” he said.

Helping individual veterans explain their service to employers is another goal of the national federation and law campus-based veterans groups.

Veterans are notorious for acronym-laden résumés rife with military jargon that are difficult for civilian hirers to decipher, Lockwood said, and veterans often need guidance to rewrite résumés in way that highlights their experience in way others can understand.

Similarly, veterans accustomed to donning military-issued uniforms may need help in the business-attire arena. The Georgetown Military Society last year partnered with Hugo Boss for a “whiskey and workwear” event that addressed how to build a professional wardrobe, how to take care of suits, and how dressing for court may differ from day-to-day office attire.

Law school veterans groups aren’t just concerned with jobs, however. Helping former military personnel afford law school and lobbying for more scholarships is another priority. Some campus groups have successfully pushed their schools to increase their Yellow Ribbon scholarships—a program by which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs matches the scholarship amount offered by a college or university. Yellow Ribbon scholarships are an effective recruiting tool for law schools, Lockwood said.

The number of veterans at Georgetown increased from about 20 to 100 in the years since the law school upped its Yellow Ribbon scholarship from $2,500 to $10,000, he said. That translates into $20,000 a year with the V.A. match. Veterans at some law schools, including Stanford and New York University, have their entire tuitions covered through a combination of Yellow Ribbon scholarships and GI Bill benefits.

Bringing Vets to Campus

Recruiting is another goal of these campus groups, and many have partnered with law school administrators to bring more veterans to campus. The Georgetown Military Law Society, for instance, pairs every admitted veteran with a current veteran student to offer advice on choosing a school, where to live, and how to negotiate scholarships. The Michigan Law Veterans Society has also been working with the admissions department to find ways to bring more veterans to campus, Gookin said.

Perhaps the single biggest benefit of campus groups for law school veterans and a national federation is the community and network they create for former military personnel. Veterans tend to be older than the typical law student, Lockwood said, and that age gap, coupled with their maturity, experience overseas and possible family commitments can make it harder for veterans to integrate into the law school social scene. Connecting with fellow veterans also helps tamp down on the stress of law school, Gookin said.

“It’s a good reality check when you’re sitting around with your fellow veterans in the middle of finals and you say, ‘Hey, this really isn’t that bad, compared to other things we’ve been though,’ ” he said. “It’s a good way to step away from the tension.”

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