Graduating Student Ashley Singletary-Claffee Learns to Embrace Change, Build Bridges for Students
It started with Dean Paul Mahoney's Contracts class. University of Virginia law student Ashley Singletary-Claffee, who planned to use her degree to dive into policy issues relating to education or immigration, wasn't sure she would like the subject matter of the required first-semester course.
"It turned out to be one of my favorite classes," Singletary-Claffee recalled. She ended up taking courses in corporate law again and again, as she realized she didn't want to just be someone who called on a business attorney to help with an entrepreneurial adventure.
"I was more interested in having those skills for myself, frankly, and learning more about how that works," she said. "I don't have an accounting background, so it can be intimidating. But how do you know if you don't try?"
Looking back over her last three years at the Law School as she prepares to graduate on May 17, Singletary-Claffee said she's learned to embrace the twists and turns her education has taken. Yet even as she took on new challenges, she remained steadfast in her dedication to helping students through serving as Student Bar Association vice president and in other roles.
"Both in and out of the classroom, it was easy to see that Ashley is personable, self-confident and a leader," Mahoney said. "Those traits are extremely useful in a transactional business practice, so I was pleased to see her move in that direction."
After taking the bar exam, Singletary-Claffee plans to start her career in corporate law at the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
The Bronx-born Virginia Beach native has embraced the power of change before. In her second semester pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Virginia, she took an art history survey course with Professor Douglas Fordham. She soon switched her major to art history.
"I wanted to have that liberal arts experience while at such an amazing school," she said.
After graduating in 2010, she joined Teach For America at a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) school in Houston, where she taught a preschool class and was inspired by the school's can-do spirit. She also was inspired by some parents who, facing immigration concerns, lobbied Texas legislators to support the DREAM Act.
"That ticked my interest in law and policy," she said. "It was very tough for me to make that jump [to law school] because I did love my school, I loved my students, I loved everything about my life in Houston."
But at the same time she found herself asking, "How do I accomplish the goals that I want to accomplish?" She knew law school offered a step in that direction, and she found that, after a visit to the Law School, she was ready to return to Charlottesville.
"I knew I was going to get a great education wherever I went to school, but I wanted to be somewhere where the community would be somewhere I could thrive," she said. "Here we have a dynamic where students actually are very close, we like each other, we spend time outside of the classroom together because these are friendships that are important to us."
One of her long-term goals evolved as her knowledge of business law grew.
"My pie-in-the-sky dream would be to open up my own early childhood education center and hopefully expand that into multiple inner-city or lower-income areas, which I think would be difficult to achieve without knowing about corporate structures or how financing works," she said. "Who knows how far down the line until I am able to do that, but it's definitely something that I'm going to strive to do."
Mahoney's Contracts course led to more classes in the John W. Glynn, Jr. Law & Business Program , many of them taught by real-world practitioners, like Goldman Sachs managing director Jim Donovan, who taught her Leadership and Team Management short course, or the Hogan Lovells law firm attorneys who taught a course on the Role of Counsel in Business Transactions.
"I like taking classes from practitioners," she said. "They have very different perspectives and teaching techniques, which I find refreshing, and the courses complement the more theoretical or doctrinal classes."
At Willkie Farr & Gallagher, she will focus on asset management, including private equity and venture capital, among other areas.
"It will be an opportunity to learn more and make connections with companies that finance educational nonprofits [and related institutions]," she said. "I think it will be a good match with my interests."
A student leader since her middle school and high school days, Singletary-Claffee ran for a seat on the First Year Council soon after coming to law school. She also served as membership editor of the Virginia Tax Review and as a Peer Advisor, the upperclassmen who help first-year students adjust to law school.
"The underlying current behind all of these things is trying to make others' experiences here as good as mine has been, and as good as my experience was in undergrad, and to share that love of Charlottesville and UVA with the student body as much as I can," Singletary-Claffee said.
She also helped recruit students as Admissions and Recruitment Chair for the Black Law Students Association, and as the Admitted Students Weekend co-chair with her roommate, Katie Clifford.
Former SBA president Alexander Matthews said Singletary-Claffee was "invaluable" in many roles at the school, including as SBA vice president, through which she organized events like Diversity Week and alumni receptions. On the SBA Graduation Committee she oversaw the selection process for the commencement speaker, DeMaurice Smith '89 , and organized events designed for third-year students.
"Ashley is incredibly friendly, empathetic, well-liked and respected by all of her peers," Matthews said. "This year would truly not have been possible without her hard work, dedication and many contributions to the Law School community."
Matthews praised her work as graduation gift co-chair with third-year law student Rhett Ricard.
"Ashley is passionately dedicated to the current and long-term success of the Law School, and she demonstrated this by continuing the recent tradition of soliciting donation pledges from more than 80 percent of the graduating class," Matthews said.
Singletary-Claffee said it was important that students, especially women minorities who can "bring a new voice to the table," participate in student government and a range of organizations, to help diversify leadership and create a close-knit community.
Looking back on her final year, Singletary-Claffee said she's pleased that she was able to accomplish her goals as a student leader.
"I can't think of a better way to spend my three years here than trying to improve the experience of others — that's what I like to do and that's how I feel that my life is being fulfilled."
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Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.