With Family on His Side, Stoughton Takes Nontraditional — But Rewarding — Path to Law Degree

May 9, 2011

Most of Seth Stoughton's fellow members of the Class of 2011 were fresh from college and about 24 years old when they first set foot in the Law School. But Stoughton brought his wife, 3-year-old son and 10-week-old daughter along for his first visit for an admissions interview.

Seth Stoughton '11

He was 27 and had already served as a full-time police officer and investigator in Florida, where he spent 10 years finishing his degree in English from Florida State University.

"He was clearly a good fit for our community — he was serious-minded, but energetic and thoughtful," recalled Director of Admissions Jason Dugas.

Three years later, Stoughton is graduating and has a prestigious federal appellate clerkship lined up with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Juggling law school and family might seem daunting for most students, but Stoughton said the long struggle to earn his undergraduate degree while managing a full-time job, school and a burgeoning family put studying law in perspective.

"I actually got to spend more time with the family because I could just do one thing — I could just go to law school," he said.

Stoughton, a Palm Beach County, Fla., native, was looking for a part-time job as a college student when he signed up to become a police officer.

"They told me that it would be no problem for me to attend school as well as work full-time. Apparently they had never done it, because I had a lot of trouble doing it," he said. "I'm a nontraditional 'nontraditional' student. I both worked before law school and came straight through from undergrad at the same time."

As a patrol officer, he was a first responder to the typical kind of problems you might find in a college town, including one episode that made him briefly famous among MTV fans, when he arrested a man whose pants were on fire after he put a lit cigarette in his pocket.

"I would go break up a party that had gotten a number of loud noise complaints, and I would be greeted very enthusiastically," he said. "I still don't Google very well because that story comes up as one of the top hits."

He worked for five years as a police officer, during which time he got married to his wife, Alisa. He then changed to a job that had regular hours so he could finish his degree.

At the Florida Department of Education's Office of Inspector General, he investigated employee misconduct and private school tuition voucher fraud. When he finished his degree, he faced a choice between pursuing federal investigative work and attending law school.

"We made absolutely the right decision, packed, and moved up here."

"Before I became a police officer I had thought about studying law," he said. I find law — as both a practical set of rules by which we live our lives and also as an abstract formative concept that allows a group of people to form a society — fascinating."

In law school Stoughton treated his studies like a job, starting work in the building at about 8 and leaving at about 5:30. In doing so he was able to keep most of his evenings and weekends free from school work.

"Because I was already used to working normal hours, the transition wasn't as challenging as I think it might be for someone who comes straight from undergrad," he said.

Being older and having a family made attending law school a different experience for Stoughton in some ways — he was not a fixture on the social scene, for example.

"A number of social events started after my bedtime. But there were enough people in my section or whom I met socially at the Law School who also kept similar hours that I was able to make a number of good friends."

Stoughton joined Virginia Law Families, a student organization supporting spouses and families through networking, social events and kids' play dates, and later became its president during his second year.

"As a parent and an older student, I relate to the professors a little bit differently, but that's been entirely positive from my perspective," he said. His first-year criminal law professor, Anne Coughlin, attended his daughter Lorelei's first birthday, and Lorelei and Stoughton's son, Aidan, attend school with other professors' children.

Stoughton also fully engaged in other aspects of student life — he was an articles editor on the managing board of the Virginia Law Review and served as president of Street Law, an organization in which law students teach legal concepts to high school students. He also worked on a pro bono project with the Charlottesville public defender's office.

"There are so many great opportunities, it seemed like a shame not to take advantage of some of them," he said.

Stoughton also made his mark through his academic work. He took the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic this year, which requires a competitive application process and substantial dedication from students.

"It was a great year to be involved, with our cases taking up 5 percent of the Supreme Court's docket," he said.

Stoughton was in Associate Professor Charles Barzun's Torts class his first semester in Law School.

"He was one of the class's most engaged students, frequently asking questions, but not with the goal of impressing other students with his knowledge or insight," Barzun said. "His questions seemed to reflect a genuine curiosity about the doctrine — about how it worked in practice and whether it made sense."

The logistics of summer employment, when many students first work for their future full-time employer, were more challenging for Stoughton than for the average student. He moved his family in with his in-laws' for several weeks during the summer after his first and second years.

"It was nice to give them some time with the kids too," he said.

Stoughton praised his wife for making his career possible.

"I have said before and I maintain that she works far harder than I do to support me as I go through law school. She's been incredibly kind and understanding and willing to share this adventure with me, and I very much appreciate her and the kids' patience, tolerance and support they've given," he said.

Stoughton said he doesn't regret choosing to become a lawyer over a career in law enforcement.

"Police work can be challenging and stimulating on a number of levels, but when you're just doing the type of work I was doing — when you're just doing patrol work — it's not always intellectually stimulating. You have to be very canny and you have to be quick-witted, but it's not exactly the same as the legal challenges that you think through in law school," he said.

"His best friends on the force have been very supportive of his pursuit of a law degree, and other colleagues from his old job would be quite happy as long as I don't become a defense attorney."

When he graduates on May 22, Stoughton said he will have mixed feelings.

"I couldn't have imagined a better place to end up," he said. "Graduating is very bittersweet. I'm very proud and honored of the accomplishments and the education I've received here — but it also makes me a little reluctant to leave."

His children also met many milestones during his time in Virginia.

"Lorelei took her first steps at the Law School," he said. "That's going to make a great personal statement for her when she applies to the law school one day."

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