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Lessons learned on the long road to the law  

 

In 24 years with the Raleigh Police Department, Capt. Tim Tomczak has gone from a rank-and-file beat cop to Southwest District commander. On May 7, he earned his law degree and took the next step toward becoming a prosecutor.  

For as long as he can remember, Tomczak wanted to be a police officer. He learned the virtue of helping others from his father, who lost his legs in Vietnam but never lost the desire to serve. Recently, cancer took Tomczak’s father but not his lessons. 

“He always talked about serving the community,” Tomczak said. “To his last days, he was so worried about other people.”  

Being a full-time cop while moonlighting as a student in Campbell Law School’s FLEX program was challenging, but Tomczak seems to have found his calling. Years of community interaction and hands-on training with the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys has solidified his belief that he is where he is supposed to be.  

“I really get to see how every day they make decisions to get people on the right path,” Tomczak said. “This will be another great way to serve the community.” 

And he’s just one of a significant number of attorneys who came to the law after an extensive career in another profession.  

The ranks of such attorneys are likely to grow in the coming years. The pandemic has caused many people to think hard about what they want to do with their lives, and for quite a few the answer has apparently included going to law school. Applications to law schools have surged since the pandemic started, and local schools say that they’re seeing increases in applications from both traditional (as in recently out of college) and non-traditional (older and more experienced) candidates.  

Making an asset of themselves  

Such non-traditional students are highly valued by law schools for the experience and diversity of thought. Those same traits are also prized by law firms. Mark Stafford, senior partner in Nelson Mullins’ Winston-Salem office, is a veteran business litigator of 30 years. Before law school, his experience working for a telecommunications company enabled him to understand “rhythms of corporate cultures” and associated stresses.    

Prior career experience of any kind, Stafford said, can be beneficial to both attorney and employer.   

“Clients feel more comfortable with you at an earlier stage and you tend to have greater efficiencies and abilities to prioritize than your peer group of lawyers,” Stafford said. “Senior people in your firm will also give you added and more varied responsibilities earlier if your maturity and pre-law experiences are evident.”   

In 2007, Catherine Meehan was a recent nursing school graduate who landed her dream job working in the pediatric unit of a Charleston, South Carolina, hospital. She loved her job and the medical field generally, but couldn’t shake her affinity for the law, stoked by summers working in her grandfather’s Washington, D.C., firm.  

So, she went to law school and today is a registered nurse and a personal injury attorney with the Steinberg Law Firm in Charleston.  

Meehan maintains her nursing license though she doesn’t practice. But her medical background and staying current in the field allows her to understand medical records and problems that her clients deal with.  

“You know, I have been on the side of taking care of them while they are injured in a medical setting, now I’m taking care of them in a legal setting,” Meehan said.  

Banks of all kinds  

Second-career lawyers can greatly enhance a law firm’s diversity of perspectives, but they’re also a diverse group themselves and come to the law from all sorts of walks of life and prior professions.  

Jeff Yungman, director of legal services for Charleston homeless shelter One80 Place, was a New Orleans cop before targeting social justice issues rather than criminal justice issues. After quitting the force, he earned master’s degrees in social work and public health from Tulane University, and focused on child services and runaway youths before moving to South Carolina in 1990.   

Yungman joined One80 Place in 1999 as a case manager. Clients often came to him with legal needs, but he said that he could never round up enough attorneys willing to work pro bono.  

“We were not able to provide certain services,” Yungman said, “so I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll do it.’”   

In 2004, the Charleston School of Law was established. Seizing the opportunity, Yungman, then 53, enrolled. Admitted to the state bar in 2008, he spends his days fighting for the legal rights of the city’s homeless.  

Leaving a successful career to go to law school is undeniably a leap of faith. A recent Gallup poll shows that most law school graduates don’t believe that their degree is worth the cost. Other studies have shown that practicing law is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. But the consensus among those who shared their stories with Lawyers Weekly is that it was well worth it.   

Meehan said that other nurses have asked her advice about moving from the medical field to the legal arena. She is honest in her feedback: Law school is expensive, markets are saturated, and the work is nonstop. This is not to discourage but to inform.  

“I tell them to make sure their hearts are in it before they make the transition,” Meehan said.  

Tomczak, and other non-traditional law students and second-career attorneys who have chosen law as their profession, would likely agree. 

“I truly believe that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves,” Tomczak said. “We have to put our personal stuff aside to reach out and help others. I’ll continue to do my part to help the helpless and make sure that justice gets served.”  

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher 

  

  


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