As a student at the University of Virginia School of Law, Manal Cheema ’20 equipped herself with the knowledge and experiences she felt would best prepare her to be an attorney in the armed forces.
After graduation, Cheema, a native of Sharon, Massachusetts, will clerk for Judge Kevin A. Ohlson ’85 on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Armed Forces in Washington, D.C., and then will enter active duty in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, an arm of the military concerned with military justice and military law.
“My parents instilled in me a value system that puts the needs of others above your own and places the utmost prestige on supporting and serving your country,” said Cheema, a second-generation American and child of Pakistani immigrants. “My experiences in college and law school ultimately inspired me to serve through the military.”
Cheema picked the Navy because its core values — honor, courage and commitment — are qualities she tries to live by every day, although she said she has respect for all of the branches.
“Every single judge advocate I’ve met in the Navy, Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard has always been so passionate and confident and teamwork-oriented,” she said. “I just felt practicing law as a judge advocate best aligned with my own moral compass.”
Cheema credits classmates Kayla Armstrong and Jackson Stallings, who are also headed to the Navy JAG Corps, for their support during the months-long professional recommendation and commissioning processes, which involved several trips to Norfolk.
Cheema said her goals while working in the Navy as a lawyer are to rise to the high expectations of being an officer and to help sailors in their daily lives.
“If I could write an airtight will or help sailors with the legal problems that they’re facing so that they can focus on their mission, I would achieve my goals at the end of the day,” she said.
Cheema was recently named the Law School recipient of the National Association of Women Lawyers’ Outstanding Law Student Award. The honor recognizes students who have contributed to the advancement of women in society, and promoted issues and concerns of women in the legal profession.
Cheema concluded her term as president of Virginia Law Women in March.
“I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without the support of women I got to know at UVA,” she said. “I so firmly believe in the power of women to excel and raise each other up, and I consistently saw my peers do just that.”
Along with Jess Feinberg ’21 and Katharine Janes ’21, Cheema is currently co-directing the Speak Up Project, a mixed-methods research project studying academic and social dynamics at UVA Law, with a particular focus on gender and intersectionality. The project was inspired by the centennial anniversary of coeducation at UVA Law.
Among her other accomplishments at UVA Law, Cheema was a submission review editor for the Virginia Journal of International Law and on the editorial board of the Virginia Law Review. She served as a Peer Advisor and on the boards of the Program in Law and Public Service, Minority Rights Coalition and South Asian Law Students Association. She attended UVA Law on full scholarship as an inaugural Virginia Public Service Scholar, and is a Ritter Scholar, a Monroe Leigh Fellow, a Salzburg Cutler Fellow, a LENS Scholar, and a member of the Raven Society. Additionally, she was a semifinalist in the Clara Barton International Humanitarian Law Competition, where she won the program’s award for best advocate.
In 2018, Cheema interned at the U.S. Department of Defense with help from a Public Interest Law Association grant. This past winter, her essay “Fill in the Blank: Compelling Student Speech on Religion” was published in the Virginia Law Review.
Cheema has worked as a research assistant in the past year to Professor Ashley Deeks, who is a senior fellow at the Center for National Security Law. Having also taken three of Deeks’ classes (National Security Law, International Law, and Current Issues in Law of War), Cheema cemented her interest in the military while building a rapport with the professor. Cheema and Deeks co-authored an op-ed for Lawfare analyzing the prosecution of purposeful coronavirus exposure.
“It has been a pleasure watching Manal develop as a lawyer since her 1L year,” Deeks said. “I respect, in particular, her confidence, her public-mindedness and her interest in ensuring that women are heard and are thriving at the Law School. And, of course, I am excited that she will be pursuing a career in national security through her role as a Navy JAG. We’re fortunate to have people like Manal, who has strong analytical and writing skills and good judgment, in our military. I have no doubt that she will be a great credit to the legal profession and to UVA Law.”
Professor Thomas Nachbar, a judge advocate in the U.S. Army Reserve, has also mentored Cheema. Like Deeks, he is a senior fellow at the Center for National Security Law, and Cheema took his Seminar in Ethical Values. After doing an independent study with him, she wrote the article “Ubers of Space: U.S. Liability Over Unauthorized Satellites,” forthcoming in the Journal of Space Law, in which Cheema examines how regulatory regimes impact small satellite companies. She presented her paper at the Salzburg Cutler Fellows seminar, a program for elite law students that expands participants’ connections in international law.
When Cheema approached him about writing on space law at the start of her 2L year, Nachbar encouraged her to keep appraised of the news for scholarship ideas and return at the end of the semester. Learning about companies like Swarm Technologies and unauthorized launches helped spur her independent study when they reconnected.
“Professor Nachbar was so patient with me,” she said, “and he said, OK, with all this information, we’re going to take a step back. There’s a lot of great ideas, and it seems like you’ve learned the subject. But now you have to teach everyone else the subject. That’s what your article needs to look like.”
At the neighboring Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, Cheema took Special Topics in Physical and Sexual Abuse Cases, and Law and Terrorism; she was the only UVA Law student in the former. She also worked with judge advocates to prepare for the Georgetown National Security Crisis Law Simulation and Clara Barton Competition. David Graham, associate director for programs at the Center for National Security Law, was her coach for both events.
Cheema first learned about the JAG Corps as an undergraduate at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where she earned a B.A. in political science. She attended a lecture by the military’s top war crimes prosecutor. She later had the opportunity to work for him in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the summer after her first year of law school.
“I found that it was the perfect intersection of what I wanted to do: be a national security lawyer or a military lawyer and work those fields, and, at the same time, serve my country as an officer in the military, which I think holds a whole different set of responsibilities than just being a lawyer,” she said. “I want to be able to actually weigh in on cutting-edge and urgent issues and help resolve some of the most difficult ethical problems that we have.”
She split the summer after her second year of law school between the Counterterrorism Section of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Legal Adviser at the Department of State.
As a religious minority growing up in post-9/11 America, Cheema said she saw how national security law affects the day-to-day lives of every American. She described national security as the most compelling of the government’s duties, and deeply intertwined with international relations.
“When done right, it's incredible, because it’s protecting our nation’s security,” she said. “But when done wrong or where lawyers don’t possess a certain moral courage in executing their job as national security lawyers, things can go awry. My hope is that, by being present, I can do my part in helping the United States conduct its national security law affairs lawfully and ethically. Ultimately, I would like to look back at the body of my life’s work and be proud of what I did.”
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.