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Students walk diverse paths to law school

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When Admissions Director Traci Howard talks about the rich context of California Western School of Law’s education, she includes the social, ethnic, age and racial diversity of the student population.

“Our students study in a very collegial environment with classmates who bring a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives on why they are studying law,” she said. “California Western believes exposing students to how the law affects different sectors of society contributes to the richness of their education.”

Here are the stories of four students’ paths to California Western.

From Mexico to the Marines to the law

When he was 7 years old, Cesar PenaRivera moved with his mother from their native Mexico to Santa Barbara. At 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Throughout his youth, however, his father kept him focused on one thing.

“My dad was very hardworking, but not very educated,” he said. “He wanted his children to make a better life for themselves. He constantly nudged us about education, but it wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate all the nudges.”

As part of his Marine enlistment, PenaRivera, 32, attended the University of Colorado and received his junior officer commission upon graduation. Nearing the end of his mandatory five-year enlistment, PenaRivera was set to enroll in California Western in 2003. But he was sent to Afghanistan and unable to make the enrollment date.

“California Western told me not to worry, and I could start when I returned,” he said.

He finally got the opportunity to enroll in January 2004 after leaving active duty. Now in his second year, PenaRivera is excited about joining his wife, also a California Western graduate, in a legal career and seeing his father’s wishes come true.

“Two of my brothers are doctors and my father always wanted an attorney in the family,” he said.

Capitol Hill experience shapes decision

Drew Lyman grew up in San Diego, but his formative career experience was working for a lobbying group, and then as press secretary and legislative aide to a North Carolina congressman.

After three years on Capitol Hill, Lyman decided to come home to San Diego.

“You can spend your whole life in Washington promoting someone else’s career,” he said. “I decided I wanted to do something on my own, in and for my own community.”

His decision to pursue law came as no surprise to his family. After all, he had grown up around the law. His father, Wells Lyman, is a California Western graduate, longtime San Diego attorney and current president of the county bar association.

“Studying law was something I was always interested in; it was part of my psyche,” Lyman said. “I look up to my dad. He is certainly my primary mentor in the law.”

The younger Lyman hopes to pursue a business law-related career.

One surprise for Lyman has been his fellow students. As an experienced Washington operative, Lyman thought he’d be sitting in class next to recent college graduates.

“My classmates have a wide range of backgrounds and experiences,” he said. “It is certainly more competitive than I thought it would be.”

Law around the clock

Shacasey Rogers is a third-year law student who already has a law career. She has been working in-house for a medical management services organization as a legal compliance coordinator for the past five years and kept the job while attending California Western part time.

Before entering the health care compliance field, Rogers worked as a paralegal.

“I became a paralegal after graduating from San Diego State University because it seemed like a good way to see if I liked working in the legal field before spending a lot of money to get a law degree,” she said.

Students from California Western regularly intern at the medical management company where Rogers works. She observed that interns from California Western were well prepared and had a practical understanding of the law.

“That gave California Western a leg up when I began considering which law schools to apply to,” she said.

While working and studying is demanding, Rogers believes that “returning to school was not as hard as one might expect.”

“My professional and law school experiences have really complemented each other,” she added.

Choosing law as a career: Merging the best of teaching and business

Chris Cannon didn’t think law was for him.

“My dad was a civil attorney in private practice and I didn’t see much of him,” said Cannon, whose father is San Diego Superior Court Judge William Cannon. “At 11 and 12 years old, I didn’t think that was fair.”

Now at 25, Cannon is spending the last part of his legal education working 40 hours a week for the Sacramento District Attorney’s office under a California Western program that provides credits for substantial intern experience.

The turnaround came after a brief stint as a K-12 teacher following graduation from UC Davis in 2002. Law school seemed the perfect opportunity for a career that mixed teaching’s sense of social responsibility with business’ opportunity for personal reward.

“As an undergraduate I was interested in either teaching or business,” he said. “The problem with teaching is the lack of variety, and there isn’t a lot of financial opportunity. I realized that the positives of teaching and business could be combined in the law. The law can provide variety every day and while I’m finding out that not all lawyers make a lot of money, there is that possibility with lots of work.”

Cannon said he entered law school without any preconceived notions.

“I love the material and the faculty is wonderful,” said Cannon, who is a Kennedy Scholar, the school’s most prestigious scholarship named for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. “But it does consume your entire life.”

Cannon has advice for anyone considering law school: “Don’t go for the wrong reasons. Some people go because they have nothing better to do or think it might be fun to try. Go for the right reason. Go because you want to become involved in law and you understand the commitment required.

“Law is a very positive thing and you have myriad opportunities to do great things for society.”

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