A Voice for Youths
Spending part of his youth living in a group home, Michael Ma ’21 saw firsthand how important legal representation and access to the simple necessities of life are for people in need.
Ma, a University of Virginia School of Law student, hopes one day to return the favor and become a guardian ad litem. Such guardians are appointed by judges to provide independent recommendations to the court about a child’s or incapacitated adult’s best interests.
Born in Beijing and raised in Virginia Beach, Ma majored in political science at Old Dominion University. At UVA Law, he serves on the Virginia Journal of Criminal Law editorial board. After graduation, he plans to work at Cahill Gordon & Reindel in New York City.
In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Ma discussed how living and then volunteering at a shelter changed his life, and how taking Contracts taught him to think deeper about the law.
Why law school?
Right as I began freshman year of high school, I was placed in a group home for my safety. I was also appointed a guardian ad litem. It was a rather uncertain period of my life, but my experience with my guardian ad litem exposed me to the tangible effects lawyers and the legal system can have on a person’s life.
Moreover, I had several counselors at the group home who dedicated a substantial amount of their time to ensure my well-being. Between my guardian ad litem’s advocacy for me and the time my counselors spent with me, I realized I wanted to do for others what they did for me. I eventually decided that I wanted to become a guardian ad litem as well, and work in a profession that was in service of others.
I think for law schools in general, it is easy to get lost and get caught up with what everyone should do and make sure all the checkboxes are ticked. But my classmates come from such an array of diverse backgrounds and have [such] different interests that it is reassuring to know that our profession is not limited to only a few options. Moreover, some of my classmates have already accomplished so much just in law school alone in pursuit of their goals that it inspires me to focus and ensure that I don’t lose sight of why I chose to attend law school.
Tell us something about your life before law school.
After living in the group home for over six months, I returned to the organization and worked with several of Seton Youth Shelters’ programs in college. I was particularly involved with their Helping Youth Pursue Excellence program, where middle and high school students had the opportunity to volunteer and assist in community service projects.
I think one of the most memorable events with HYPE was when we volunteered at the Crow’s Nest, a homeless center, around the holidays. We packed some backpacks with hygiene supplies and snacks, and helped serve dinner. I remember the mood being quite lively, and many people who received backpacks were delighted with some of the goodies inside. I think we sometimes take for granted certain basic necessities in life like a hot meal or a warm shower, but that event illustrates the fact that sometimes the smallest things can make a substantive difference.
I recall when I was living in Seton Youth Shelters and my counselors would take me to 7-Eleven to get a slushie during our counseling sessions. I looked forward to those sessions every week because it felt nice just having someone spend time with me. I recalled one conversation I had with one of my counselors and asked him why he was working at Seton part time while he was working full time as a defense contractor. He told me that he wanted to be someone whom he needed when he was a child. For me personally, being a guardian ad litem is my way of ensuring I can do for others what so many have done for me.
Describe your most interesting law school experience.
I don’t think there was one specific moment that shaped my law school experience. Instead, I think certain courses I took definitely reshaped how I view the law and the impact it can have on public policy. In particular, Contracts was not only one of the most interesting and enlightening classes I’ve ever taken, but it was also my first exposure to law and economics, and the incentives and disincentives the law can create that shape our public policy.
I think the way Professor [Kevin] Kordana taught the class definitely made it more interesting and enjoyable. He used many vivid examples to illustrate an underlying principle or doctrine, which made the material both accessible for a 1L and the class entertaining and enjoyable. Moreover, I enjoyed the fact that the class dispelled some preconceived ideas I had about the law in general prior to law school. I had this notion that the law was quite formal and mechanical, but the course revealed how malleable the law can actually be, and the influence lawyers and judges can have in shaping it.
What’s something your classmates don’t know about you?
While I was in college, I thought I wanted to work in politics. I was a field organizer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. I also worked for the delegate and senator from Virginia Beach [at] the Virginia General Assembly during the session. However, I realized that the law, rather than politics, was a better vehicle for me to make a tangible difference in people’s lives.
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