“Well, have you ever thought about going to law school?”, she said. I thought she was kidding, but no, my mother was completely serious. This conversation with my mother occurred around the time I was nearing the end of my undergraduate days at San Diego State. I was about to graduate with a major in criminal justice and two minors: one in psychology and one in sociology, and guess what? I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I liked working with people, and I wanted to help others who truly needed it.
I had spent my last semester at SDSU volunteering at a local prison where I aided some of the inmate population with their writing skills. I loved this experience because it was hands-on, and I was able to see the development of these men who truly wanted to change – they just needed some help doing so.
However, I did not see a way I could do something similar as a career. I had no desire to be a prison guard (for numerous reasons, but mostly the inherent danger of it). Similarly, I did not want to be a police officer like many of my colleagues were pursuing. And so, here I was wondering, “what the heck am I going to do with this degree?” That is how I ended up in a conversation with my mom, and she posed the aforementioned question to me.
Now, the reason I was surprised was because I used to think law school was an institution that was only accessible to the ultra-successful, wealthy, and highly intelligent individuals. I thought, “that’s a career for the high-powered, corporate-driven people. That’s not like me!” It was not that I thought I would not fit in, but rather that I was not capable of getting in, much less becoming an attorney.
Fortunately, there was a member of my family who had a friendship with one of the Assistant District Attorneys in San Diego, and so I sat down to talk to her about it. I soon realized that my preconceived notions about law school were all false. There were many types of people who attend law school with a myriad of career goals. And that’s what started me on my journey to apply and eventually become accepted to law school.
Most might find it surprising that a guy from San Diego would end up at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Indeed, that was the general reaction I received from my fellow classmates when I arrived in Norman, OK for my law school orientation. My rationale was that I wanted to save myself from as much debt as possible, while also looking for a place with job opportunities. California (in my opinion at the time) was not the place due to its high cost of living and generally higher cost of tuition for good law schools.
Not to mention the intimidating bar passage rate in the state. So, my wife and I agreed to expand our horizons and look out of state. The University of Oklahoma’s out-of-state tuition was attractive, and I figured the competition would be less stiff thus enabling me to find a decent job in an affordable location to plant and start our family.
As I made my way through law school and survived the first year, I found my interests to be in the courtroom fighting for clients as opposed to the more business-centric law courses/career. In fact, I started to grow a deep interest to serve as a Judge Advocate (JAG) in the military. It seemed like the perfect fit. On one hand, there is military tradition in my family. My grandfather was a naval aviator during the Korean War, my father is currently a reservist in the Air Force as a chaplain, and my brother served in the Navy.
On the other hand, I would be able to serve and help other people who needed it i.e. our service members. And I would be able to spend a lot of time in the courtroom advocating for my client’s interests. Moreover, there are numerous benefits unavailable to the civilian attorney e.g. medical/dental care, housing allowance, tax benefits, guaranteed promotions, and a great retirement plan. It was (and is still) my belief that this would be the ideal career that would foster my abilities and experience while also providing for my family and our future.
Once I had that in mind, I focused on skills preparation courses that forced me to practice litigation techniques, and I also competed on the law school’s trial team where we competed in the National Trial Competition hosted by the Texas Young Lawyers Association. I chose to focus on a career with the U.S. Marine Corps because their core values and discipline lined up with mine. I learned how to break past barriers – both physical and mental – that I did not realize I could overcome before.
With my mind and body focused on doing well in my law school courses and on improving my physical fitness, I was selected to attend Officer Candidates School (OCS) in Quantico, VA during the summer after my second year of law school. OCS was a rigorous, stressful, and downright awful 10-weeks of military training and discipline, but through it I learned that dedication and hard work truly pay off. I graduated and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant at the end of that summer and returned for my final year of law school.
Like many things in life, I have learned through law school and my experience (so far) in the military that discipline, and hard, dedicated work are required to succeed. I know that sounds cliché, and maybe it is, but it is true nonetheless. I would not have made through law school if I did not have the drive to continue studying and reading at 1 AM when my mind was telling me to quit. I would not have made it through OCS if I had given in to the weakness of my mind and body when I was driven to the edge of physical and mental exhaustion. But by God’s grace, I made it through these challenges. I acknowledge this is just the beginning of many challenges that lay ahead, but I am determined to push through whatever lies ahead so that I may grow in my career and as a leader for my family.
Through all of this, my wife and I were ecstatic to find out she is pregnant with our first daughter who is due in November. When I heard the news, it became more real than before that I need to provide for my family and take charge. I must admit I was not prepared to deal with the financial burdens that come with a graduate-level education. Ignorance is bliss was my motto… at least until after I took the bar exam and realized how much debt there was to pay off. This is my own doing, but as stated before, I am determined to take charge of my financial responsibilities and take care of it. I am blessed to be in the military, and I certainly hope to serve twenty years and retire (and hopefully take advantage of PSLF).
I am currently researching how I can have my debt forgiven while still investing excess funds during that time. I hope to set in motion a tradition of fiscal responsibility in my children by taking care of my debt and building wealth. I have also been blessed by my grandparents who have been prudent with their investments and have aided me greatly through these years. Because of their generosity, I aspire to do the same for my children and grandchildren. I have dedicated myself to studying finance and investments because I now know that if I don’t change anything, then nothing will change. Through dedication and discipline, and with some help along the way from those wiser than me, I can accomplish this.
Thank you for taking time to read my story and consider me for this scholarship. May we never cease to apply dedication and discipline in all that we do. Semper Fidelis.
(Eric Meissner is one of four finalists for his category for the 2018 Student Loan Planner scholarship. To vote your preference, make sure to share his story on social media with the share buttons below and leave substantive comments on what you think of his essay.)