Cooley graduates emphasize the student body's broad diversity



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The young mother from Ottawa County who works at a juvenile detention center and the decorated Air Force retiree have at least two things in common.

One is that they both graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School with this January’s class. The other is that they are both studying hard for the bar exam.

They also both typify Cooley’s commitment to helping a wide variety of individuals succeed in their studies. Victoria Benavidez faced down many challenges as a mother of six who worked part-time and commuted from Holland, but still was a high achiever. Clay Wittman, who had wanted to be a lawyer since he was ten years old but found his Air Force career satisfying enough that he waited to reach that ambition, admits that, at the Air Force Academy, “I didn’t do as well academically as I thought I could have.” But at Cooley he graduated  in the top 10%  and received other academic honors.

Wittman attributed that to the “whole experience” at Cooley. “The professors are incredible,” he said, “due to, first, their experience with the law, but more importantly their passion for teaching. I loved the experience.”

Wittman says that, of his time at Cooley, he probably values most the opportunity to intern at the Access to Justice  (ATJ) Clinic last year.

The ATJ Clinic takes cases referred from Kent County Legal Assistance Center, cases that staffers deem need legal representation which LAC cannot provide. Wittman says that most of the referrals are family law cases, though there are some other types such as landlord-tenant. The students then form a team which works under the supervision of the clinic directors, Mike Dunn — an attorney with many years in practice before coming to Cooley and well-known for his weekly appearances on the radio show, “The Lawyers,” with fellow professor Curt Benson — and Misty Davis.

“It’s an incredible experience to appear in court, and get actual contact with the client – that was my most valuable experience at Cooley.”

While at Cooley, Wittman was a founding member of Cooley’s Veterans Corps, which has since done much good on campus and beyond. (See Grand Rapids Legal News Nov. 14, 2012.) He was also Senior Associate Editor of the Law Review and interned with Barnes and Thornburg, primarily with their Aviation Law Group.

Prior to that, he had received a Master’s in Aeronautical Science from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Wittman’s career in the Air Force was varied and sent him all over the world, including flying in both the Iran and Afghanistan conflicts. Starting out as a pilot, he moved through a position at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where part of his responsibilities included planning for worldwide Presidential airlift support; to Commanding Officer of the 725th Air Mobility Squadron, located in Spain but supervising operations, including humanitarian missions, from Spain, Italy, Egypt, and Israel; to Director of Plans and Policy for the Joint Task Forth North, U.S. Northern Command in Texas, where he headed up a team partnering with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Border Patrol in “developing  strategic goals and plans to more efficiently and effectively secure and protect the borders of the United States.”

“I had planned to go back to law school many years earlier,” Wittman says, “but the Air Force kept giving me great opportunities, sending my family and me to Germany and Spain and all over. We loved it, but then finally it was time to go.”

Wittman lives in Kentwood and he and his wife have just seen their two sons through college.

Victoria Benavidez’s blended family includes children from the ages of 18 down to two — and the two-year-olds are twins. After her 18-year-old stepson briefly tried life on his own, he came back and now “he helps out a lot.”

With her supervisory position at the Ottawa County Juvenile Detention Center and her Cooley studies, Benavidez says that she has needed a lot of help. “It really is hard, but you take it day by day. And my husband is really supportive; I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

Benavidez too says she has known for a long time that she wanted to go to law school. She received her undergraduate degree from Ferris State in Criminal Justice, at the time entertaining the idea of becoming a juvenile probation officer. But before she finished at Ferris, she had decided law school was the better choice, and in Cooley she found the flexibility that allowed her to attend.

It is still of utmost importance to Benavidez to help youth, and she says that, since becoming a supervisor, she really misses the direct contact Benavidez is half Mexican, and she said that posed challenges at times growing up, though they were social rather than academic or in employment. “It was very difficult growing up being biracial. There were Hispanic kids and white kids, but not a lot of mixed. That’s very much changed now in this area,” she adds.

But she has nothing but good to say about her Cooley experience. “It seemed like they were really motivated to help you learn,” she notes.

And what do the two graduates plan to do with their law degrees?

Well, first, there is that bar exam. Benavidez took advantage of Barbary courses and the two-credit course Cooley offers, but both are focused on studying for the late February exam.

Wittman says he has some interest in the field of family law, but he knows for sure that he does not want to go the 60-70-hour-a-week new associate route. He anticipates joining a small firm or hanging out his own shingle.

For Benavidez, it has become most clear what she does not want to do: criminal cases involving juveniles. She would, however, like to continue her work with youth as a guardian ad litem or do pro bono work on the side.

Referring to a juvenile court

referee position opening for which she is not yet qualified to apply, Benavidez says, “That would be my perfect world.”