Sean Onwualu ’24 Trades in Playbooks for Casebooks

Sean Onwualu

Seeing lawyers negotiating, writing and interpreting contracts for athletes “piqued my interest enough that I decided study for the LSAT right after graduation — and the rest is history,” Sean Onwualu said. Photo by Julia Davis

March 1, 2023

A key skill for a defensive back in football is the ability to recognize a route pattern and follow the ball.

University of Virginia School of Law student Sean Onwualu, who played that position in college, picked out the law school route during a summer externship and is keeping his eye on the ball. For him, the ball he hopes to snag is using his law degree to shape cyberlaw policy to protect consumer data.

At UVA Law, Onwualu is a LawTech Center Legal Fellow and Peer Advisor, and serves as secretary of the Black Law Students Association and as vice president of on-campus programming for the Virginia Sports & Entertainment Law Society.

Onwualu, a first-generation American born and raised in California’s San Fernando Valley, earned a bachelor’s degree and playing time at Syracuse University.

In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Onwualu discussed his path to law school and his most rewarding classroom experiences at UVA, including meeting a Supreme Court justice.

Tell us something about your life before law school.

I spent a couple of years out of college before law school, working two different media jobs in New York City. I loved living in New York. My first job was in advertising, where I helped manage the Reebok account for Deutsch NY. During my time there, I got to work on a campaign from idea development to commercial release and got to be part of every step in a process that culminated in a commercial with mixed martial artist Conor McGregor. During the pandemic, I transitioned to a public relations job, where I worked on strategic campaigns for the BerlinRosen firm. During my time there, I helped labor unions with strategic campaigns, such as the Service Employees International Union and The Fight For 15. I helped mobilize news coverage for strikes, worker stories and legislative wins, and worked on their social media presence. I worked in that position until two weeks before law school.

How did you end up playing defensive back at Syracuse University?

After high school, I really wanted to leave California — not for any negative reason, but it was all I knew — and I wanted to broaden my horizons. I started playing football in seventh grade and although I graduated from high school without a ton of attention from college programs, I made it a promise to myself that whatever school I went to, I would at least try to walk on to the football team. I ended up spending four years at Syracuse University enrolling as a member of their Discovery Abroad program, which allows students to study abroad their first semester of college. I spent my first semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. After coming back to the states, and after two tryouts, I was fortunate enough to walk-on to the Syracuse football team halfway through my sophomore year. During my senior season Syracuse finished the season ranked No. 15 with a 10-3 record and won the 2018 Camping World Bowl, beating the West Virginia Mountaineers, 34-18.

Why law school?

Going to law school was never something I had thought about or even planned to do until my last semester as an undergrad. I studied sport management at Syracuse, and as part of the curriculum you had to spend one of your last two semesters doing a full-time externship with a sports organization. I ended up externing for Athletes First, one of the premier sports agencies for NFL athletes. During my time there, I spent a lot of time working with lawyers, and seeing their skills negotiating, writing and interpreting contracts up close piqued my interest enough that I decided study for the LSAT right after graduation — and the rest is history. They inspired me to go to law school because they demonstrated the power words have and the special work lawyers do in crafting contracts and negotiating life-changing amounts of money for people. Most importantly, they demonstrated it in a very interesting way that did not scare me off. I wanted to learn their skills and use that to affect my own life and the communities I’m in.

Describe your most interesting law school experience.

Last year, I was lucky enough to be chosen for a lunch with Justice Stephen Breyer and got to ask him a question. I asked him how today’s hyperpolarization in politics affects the public trust in the courts. His answer was along the lines of saying that throughout the history of the court, there have been popular decisions and unpopular decisions, and that trust in the courts isn’t the most important thing — it is how people respond to the court’s decisions and effectuate change that is the important part.

It was interesting to hear the opinions of someone who appears in most of our casebooks. It’s great to be at a school that draws these opportunities.

One of the more interesting classes I’ve taken is Sports and Games with Professor [Richard] Re. It is hardly a surprise that someone with my background found this class interesting, but I did. Learning how the judicial systems and adjudicative decisions are made, using a lens of sports, made a lot of sense to me and showed me that there are lot more analogues between sports and the law than one might have thought.

In terms of a rewarding class, I would say that completing my research paper for Comparative Gender Equality was the most rewarding. We spent a lot of time in that class examining how other countries deal with specific legal problems compared to the United States. The class was very eye-opening, and researching the way other countries do things gave me a lot of insight into the change I would personally like to see in American jurisprudence.

What’s something your classmates don’t know about you?

During my time at Syracuse University, I produced and appeared on their student-run TV station, CitrusTV, for all four years. I appeared on air for sports and entertainment shows. Syracuse is known for its broadcast journalism school, and I ended up getting to work with a lot of talented people who are now on-air at news stations and sports programs all over the country. The channel was only available on school TVs and for students who connected to the campus cable line, but it was the default channel in most school buildings and the student centers. I’m glad I did it because getting in front of a camera every week (sometimes live) helped me be a better public speaker and I had a blast getting creative and making fun skits for shows and putting it out there for my peers.

What’s next for you?

This summer I’ll be working at the law firm White & Case in New York City. I spent last summer as an intern working on privacy regulation and U.S. policy for Apple in the Legal and Global Security Group. At White & Case, I hope to do work in the regulatory, intellectual property or data privacy groups. The United States is surprisingly lacking in major legislation around private and public companies’ use of people’s data. I hope to use my law degree to create good policy on a rising regulatory flashpoint for the federal government.

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.

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