When St. Mary’s University School of Law brought back the evening law program in 2007, the idea was to attract talented, motivated students who would be able to balance their professional lives with the demands of law school. The program, which just finished its fourth year, has not only done that, it also produced the top graduate for the Class of 2011, Bernie Kray.
The evening program – which early in the history of the School of Law was the only option – now accounts for a quarter of the School of Law’s student body. This time around, the evening program was designed as an option for students with significant work experience who needed or wanted to keep working while attending law school.
“The evening program is a difficult one,” said Dean Charles E. Cantú. “It requires a different set of skills to balance fulltime careers with legal education. These students not only excel in the classroom, but are involved in extracurricular activities such as the Clinical Program, the Advocacy Program and the scholarly journals.”
This spring, the St. Mary’s School of Law Foundation awarded scholarships to the top students in each class, two of whom were evening students (Kray for the third-year class and Viera Buzgova, for the second-year class). Several evening students were staff writers and editors in the St. Mary’s Law Journal and The Scholar, including Kray, Tiffany House, Alicia Calzada, Carolyn Rangel and Sarah Minter. Some, including Nicole Hines-Glover and Marion Reilly, have excelled in the advocacy programs.
“I was really impressed with the level of my fellow students,” said Alicia Calzada, a successful photojournalist who completed the program in December and passed the bar in February. She remained an evening student throughout her education, but took summer courses and internship credits to finish early. “It was an intelligent group that was already so accomplished. I enjoyed getting to know them.”
“Faculty members have stated one reason they enjoy teaching evening students is they are very hard workers who understand clearly the reasons they are in law school,” said Michael Ariens, professor of law, who served as Assistant Dean of Evening Studies for the program’s first four years.
By the midpoint of their legal educations, many students accelerate into the full-time day program and take leave from full-time careers. The flexible program encourages students to fulfill their legal education in a way that fits their routines and professions.
Richard Johnston, a certified public accountant for Valero, was looking to beef up his résumé with an advanced degree, but not a drastic career change. Johnston, a California transplant, graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio and had already completed a career in the U. S. Air Force and worked in public accounting before joining Valero.
“I’m an older student; I knew where I was going at the end of the day,” Johnston said. But balancing a fulltime career had its ups and downs. “Some days were worse than others. Once you get past the initial shock of going back to the classroom, it becomes tolerable. You realize you can do it. It is tough, but doable.”
The sentiment is echoed by Kray, who also had a career in the U.S. Air Force. He earned his undergraduate degree in telecommunications from the University of Denver and was a technical support engineer for Qwest Communications when he came to St. Mary’s. Kray chose the evening program to continue his career while studying law. “I wanted to hedge my bets and didn’t want to quit my job with the economy,” said Kray. “After my first semester I realized, ‘I can do this’ and took advantage of a layoff opportunity at my company.”
While no longer working fulltime, Kray chose not to accelerate into the day program, but decided to concentrate on academic activities like the St. Mary’s Law Journal and fine tuning legal skills through experiential internships. At the journal, he spent a year as a staff writer and last year served as articles editor. He worked as law clerk at Davis, Cedillo & Mendoza from August 2009 to July 2010 and as legal research assistant for law professor Chenglin Liu. Kray also did a stint as a judicial intern with Judge Edward Prado, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In his home life, Kray got married three weeks before beginning law school and now has one son.
Johnston worked with St. Mary’s Academic Support program tutoring first-year law students for two years. He was the lone evening student who took on clinic hours in the Criminal Justice Clinic, and all the while continued working full-time at Valero.
“The faculty was very accommodating. I was working on an acquisition in Europe and they worked with me through that as I traveled out of the country,” Johnston said. Like most of his classmates, he has spent this summer studying for the July bar. “The School of Law did a great job providing the evening curriculum with all the core classes and making sure we had a core education to prepare us for the bar. The other side of that is we didn’t get the opportunity to take some of the electives we would have liked to take, but there are only so many hours and so many professors,” Johnston said.
The same scheduling challenges face the new graduates as they study for the bar. Johnston takes his bar preparation course online and does an hour at lunch and a couple hours at night.
After passing the bar, Kray hopes to concentrate in intellectual property law and Johnston may move into a more legal position within his company. Calzada continues working as a photojournalist with her established clients, but the only new clients she accepts these days have legal issues.
Calzada was inspired to go to law school after working closely with the National Press Photographers Association on issues that photographers face, such as access to sporting events, harassment while shooting in public areas and First Amendment rights. Now, the National Press Photographers Association is her first client. In the fall she will be doing contract work for an attorney who concentrates on photographer issues as well.
“I learned as a photographer how many legal needs I had and now I am really excited to be in a position to help photographers,” Calzada said. “This is what I envisioned when I started law school and now I’m doing it.”