Rebecca Phelps stood on the bridge of the USS Rushmore, conning the ship over the troubled waters of the Persian Gulf amid the controlled chaos of heavy maritime traffic and military operations during the Iraq War.
That was in 2007. The U.S. Naval Academy graduate, now known as Rebecca Adams, served for five years as a surface warfare officer before attending Stanford Law School, earning her degree in 2014. What she learned in the military served her well at SLS and has proved an asset in her current career as a commercial litigator and trial lawyer.
“In the gulf, fishing boats don’t get out of your way, helicopters are doing bounces off your flight deck, and it’s critical to be focused, to tune out the noise while maintaining situational awareness,” she says.
Military service demands concentration, discipline, and the ability to synthesize large amounts of information quickly, says Adams. “All of these skills helped me tremendously in both law school and the practice of law.”
“Because of what I learned in the Navy, I always remind myself to step back and look at the big picture strategy and determine where each puzzle piece fits. In the courtroom, when the other side is arguing or presenting evidence, that’s critical in coming up with an effective response on the fly.”
Stanford Law School has a rich legacy of military veterans within its diverse student body. William H. Rehnquist, LLB ’52 (BA/MA ’48), the chief justice-to-be, attended on the GI Bill after serving as a weather observer in the Army Air Corps during World War II. The large bronze plaque in the redwood grove behind the Robert Crown Law Library honors student servicemembers killed during the Second World War and those who have served since, from William Beitler Brunton, LLB ’37 (BA ’35), to Christopher “Tripp” Zanetis, JD ’17, an Air National Guard pilot killed in a helicopter crash near the Syrian border in Iraq in 2018.
Veterans make a unique contribution on campus—and after graduation. “The legal profession is enriched by having people with military service. They bring a unique perspective of our country in the world—of priorities and challenges that ordinary citizens aren’t always aware of. We take seriously our aim to include as many veterans in each class as possible,” says Jenny Martinez, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean.
Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid Faye Deal says the law school renewed its focus on attracting veterans after 9/11. As the U.S. marks the first year without an active war in 20 years, Deal expects to continue this effort.
Because of their background in leadership, decision making, and acting under pressure, their presence “only enhances the SLS experience for other students,” says Deal. “By increasing support for veterans, the school has also benefited.”
“They bring a kind of clear-eyed gravity, a strength and centeredness of purpose, to the scene,” says Robert W. Gordon, an emeritus professor of law who served in the U.S. Army. “This isn’t to say that veterans are killjoys—in fact my experience has been that they are often among the funniest and most companionable of our students. They know how to work in groups, how to form group cohesion, and how to lead. If they are part of a project, you know that they will not let you down.”
Gordon adds that Stanford Law School actively recruits veterans. “I’ve been on the admissions committee for several years now and always keep a lookout for applicants with military service, not so much as a reward for service but in recognition of the qualities they bring to our community.”
In addition to recruitment efforts, the law school also supports veterans through financial assistance. The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 includes a provision called the GI Yellow Ribbon Program, which is designed to help students pay for tuition and fees that exceed VA benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. “A school is not obligated to fully match the government but we decided, with the advising and strong urging of key members of the Stanford Law Veterans Organization [SLVO], to do the full match back in 2013. And we were one of the first law schools in the country to fully match—and the first school at Stanford to do that,” says Deal, who expects to welcome more veterans to the new 1L class than ever before. “We went one step further too. Schools can limit the number of students it will match as a way to manage its own internal funds. We decided to ignore caps and also supported additional fundraising should that become necessary.”
Another way to attract veterans—numbers vary from 8 to 16 per class (military status is self-reporting so an exact count is not available)—is through community. Stanford Law is known for having small class sizes and approachable faculty and staff, and SLVO, launched in 2010 by students with military experience, supports and mentors former military and military-affiliated members of the SLS community.
Combining Military Experience with Legal Training
Among the veterans and serving military personnel who arrived at SLS over the years, Jaime Areizaga-Soto, JD/MA ’94, earned a double degree and went on to become the first Hispanic brigadier general in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. “The joint JD and MA in Latin American studies I got at Stanford contributed to my cross-border knowledge and led me to successful private law firm and JAG careers,” he says.
For former and current servicemembers, military experience joined with legal studies enhances their careers in government, business, and the military.
Rebecca Adams, now married with three children, works far from the sea as an associate at a Dallas law firm where she practices business and intellectual property litigation.
She says that a key takeaway from her combined military-plus-law-school training was the payoff that comes from perseverance. Plebe Summer at the Naval Academy required memorizing and reciting large volumes of information under noisy, distracting, and stressful conditions. Then, as a surface warfare officer, “every new professional qualification required an obscene amount of studying and an oral board exam.”
Law school was not necessarily easier—just a different kind of challenge that brought its own degree of difficulty. “It was no breeze,” Adams says. “Stanford was a gale force wind, but not a hurricane like the Naval Academy.”
One positive that stands out about Stanford was the warm welcome she received from fellow servicemembers. Accepted first at Harvard Law School, Adams received a steady flow of informational emails about prepping for life in Cambridge. Shortly thereafter, Stanford granted her admission.
“Within a day or so of being notified of my acceptance, a fellow Naval Academy grad and then SLS student, as well as several others in the SLS vets group, reached out to welcome me and see if I had any questions.” Impressed, she opted for Stanford.
Because she was still on reserve duty, class attendance sometimes became a problem.
“I spent two weeks doing an exercise in Alaska during our spring term. SLS was fantastic at understanding and accommodating me during this time. Whenever I had to miss a class for duty, the school recorded all of my individual classes for me so that I could keep up with them on my own. I was stunned and thankful that the school would go so far out of its way to help me. I was impressed with how deeply SLS cared about its veteran community.”
When Law School Collides with Active Duty
Jake Klonoski, JD ’13, a co-founder of SLVO, was in the law library late on March 10, 2011, when news flashed on his laptop that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a huge tsunami had ravaged northern Japan. Klonoski was at Stanford Law as a naval reservist, following active-duty assignments as a nuclear submariner.
The Navy needed his skills as a trained nuclear engineer to help limit the harm from the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
“Exams loomed, but spring break was after that, so I volunteered,” says Klonoski. He flew to Okinawa the day of his last final and spent about three weeks on the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of the 7th Fleet. “We monitored the rescue, assisted in aid efforts and mitigated the fallout—metaphorical and physical—from the disaster.”
Nearby ships’ flight decks started reading as radioactively contaminated due to the fires at Fukushima.
“Eventually, the Navy sent me to an air base in Japan to brief the heroic Marine pilots flying aid missions in their CH-47 helicopters, far above Fukushima, on their way to the devastated north coast. I gave them my best Stanford Law advice: ‘Make contemporaneous notes and keep your records close.’”
He returned to Stanford more than a week into spring quarter. “Exhausted and somewhat terrified of starting the quarter so far behind, I walked back onto campus,” he recalls. “Quickly, a small crowd gathered to welcome me back with a cheer and several hugs. Calming my anxiety, friends rallied with notes, Professor Cuellar and other faculty members relaxed deadlines, and the administration smoothed the bumps of returning. I do not know how other law schools respond to military service, but Stanford couldn’t have been better.”
In 2021 as the Russian Federation threatened Ukraine, Klonoski was recalled from his job as counsel to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to full-time service at a NATO Allied Command Transformation unit for warfare development, first at Norfolk, Virginia, and, after the invasion, as commanding officer in Newport, Rhode Island. “We monitor adversarial activity in Eastern Europe,” he says.
Life as a lawyer and as a naval officer knit well, he adds. “Ideally, the legal work and the military work are both a public service. I see them intimately partnered in advancing the highest ideals of the nation. They’re a calling, not simply a job.”
Bridging the Civilian-Military Divide
Annie Hsieh, JD/MA ’12, was a U.S. Army engineer officer who led combat construction missions clearing IEDs and repairing cratered roadways around Al Asad, Iraq, before law school. A professor and mentor from her West Point days recommended her; Harvard, Yale, and Stanford all said yes. “I thought about getting out, but eventually decided to stay on active duty,” she says. “A fellowship program let me attend law school on the Army’s dime.”
When Hsieh arrived in 2009, there weren’t many veterans at SLS. “We’d been in two back-to-back wars, and no one had time to go to law school,” she says. Referring to Klonoski she adds, “Jake’s class totally blew up the number of vets there, to 10 or 12, and SLVO got going.”
Hsieh says she encountered two worlds at Stanford: residual anti-military sentiment left over from the Vietnam era among some university professors and a warmer reception at the law school.
“Society and the military both went through a great deal of change from Vietnam to now. Some at Stanford were still debating whether to allow military recruiters on campus,” she recalls. “I stayed on the sidelines of the public debate since I was still on active duty, but I was always willing to engage in personal discussions as I navigated that environment.”
Attitudes improved as more veterans arrived. “I had my daughter during my 1L year, and in my class I was more ‘the mom’ than ‘the Army person.’ I remember conversations with a fellow vet and friend from the Naval Academy, Stephenie Handler, JD ’11, about our role at Stanford in bridging the civilian-military divide.”
Hsieh remained on active duty until 2018, rising to become the senior government appellate counsel for the U.S. Army and then the chief military prosecutor at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey. Today she’s a civilian, working in the Bay Area as an assistant U.S. attorney.
“My experiences before Stanford taught me how to be a leader, and my experiences during and after Stanford taught me how to practice law. I appreciated that the law school was supportive of the multitude of different paths people wanted to take. For me, SLS epitomized the mentality of trying to get to yes.”
Benjamin Haas, JD ’18, attended West Point, then served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan before coming to Stanford Law School. Since graduating, he has worked in human rights for a nonprofit and at the State Department and aided the Biden-Harris transition team in national security and foreign policy nominations. In March, he was appointed principal senior adviser in the Office of the National Cyber Director at the White House.
His experience with operational matters as an Army officer led him to seek a legal education. “The law of armed conflict and issues related to intelligence collection were of high interest to me,” he says. In Afghanistan, he worked with intelligence obtained by skilled interrogators questioning high-value detainees. A key insight from that experience: It is not necessary to use torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading techniques to gain valuable information. “Practices such as waterboarding do not need to happen. That became very relevant to my subsequent work at a human rights organization.”
When evaluating his next steps, Haas wanted to be on a track that would position him to help shape the legal and policy framework within which he’d operated. “This goal pointed me toward law school,” he says.
At Stanford, he found “a very welcoming, vibrant veterans community that held events like social gatherings and ‘Boots on the Ground’ lectures in which vets shared stories with their fellow law students.” A co-president of SLVO, Haas also turned to advocacy, publishing an opinion essay in the New York Times criticizing then-President Trump’s aversion to intelligence briefings: “Gathering Intelligence Is Dangerous. So Is Not Reading It.”
An early job after graduation was as counsel at Human Rights First, a nonpartisan nonprofit that challenges America to live up to its ideals by protecting refugees, combating torture and defending persecuted minorities. “I was able to draw on both my legal education and my military experience to be an effective advocate,” Haas says.
Gabe Ledeen, JD ’12, served as a U.S. Marine Corps officer during two deployments to Iraq before reaching Stanford Law School. He’s currently the chief privacy officer at Brex, a fintech company in San Francisco.
Combining military leadership training and a legal education was essential to his current business success, he says. “Lawyers receive little to no training in management and leadership, regardless of practice area or role, so it isn’t surprising that lawyers generally do not perform well as managers. By contrast, the Marine Corps truly excels in training high-performing leaders, and I have been able to draw from that earlier experience in my roles as a manager and cross-functional leader.”
He also got involved in Veterans Treatment Courts, after he, fellow former Marine Gavriel Jacobs, JD ’13, and others in SLVO noted the growing number of veterans in the criminal justice system. A seminar took shape, with Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, LLB ’66, a pioneer in dealing with veterans in court, along with the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. He credits the center’s faculty and staff including Debbie Mukamal, Bob Weisberg, Joe Bankman, and George Fisher for their strong support of veterans.
“Stanford gave us the range to explore ideas about the criminal justice system’s treatment of veterans,” Ledeen says. “There never was a hint of resistance. Nobody said, ‘This is a law school. Go study torts.’ Everybody was eager to help.”
Robert Weisberg, JD ’79, the Edwin E. Huddleston, Jr. Professor of Law, associate dean of curriculum, and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center who co-taught the policy lab says, “Our vets bring to the classroom and then to the civic life of the law school a deep maturity and worldliness and knowledge of government at the ground level and in institutional hierarchies.”
And the veterans treatment courts lab produced results. “Our veteran students, along with nonveteran fellow students, wrote the first national research report on VTCs and produced a terrific best-practices manual for judges starting such innovative courts,” adds Weisberg.
For Tim Hsia, JD/MBA ’14, who graduated near the top of his class at West Point and served as a U.S. Army infantry officer before arriving at SLS, Stanford represented a major life shift. “I came to the law school cynical of power, authority, and established knowledge because I saw just how inept our military strategy was in the Middle East,” he says. “So while I very much admired the incredible and raw intellect of Dean Kramer, Pam Karlan, Rob Daines, Joe Grundfest, many instructors, and even more so my classmates, I also loved to simply disagree with some of my instructors because I was tired of ‘established truths.’”
At Stanford, where he remained in the Army Reserves and taught Reserve Officer Training Corps classes to cadets on campus and at Santa Clara University, Hsia is paying it forward with the nonprofit he co-founded “Service to School” that helps veterans apply to undergraduate and grad school programs. Faye Deal credits the group with mentoring veterans and helping them to find the right law school, Stanford Law included. Hsia strategized on the initiative in a business school class taught by former Stanford Law School Dean Paul Brest.
“Stanford helped me find a community beyond my West Point and Army tribe,” says Hsia, who also founded Media Mobilize and is now its CEO and who also founded and leads Context Ventures, a venture fund that invests in consumer startups and also in military Veteran founders. At Stanford Tim embraced the intellectual challenge of juggling both the JD and MBA and he carries that forward today with balancing between being an operator and an investor. “I’m biased, but I think veterans are generally much more grounded than their civilian peers. It’s not to say we aren’t as driven. We are just as driven. I think we appreciate the Stanford opportunity a lot more and aren’t worried if we get the answers wrong because we’ve dealt with more perilous situations than being embarrassed in front of an entire classroom.” SL
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government. John Roemer is a legal affairs journalist with a long career at The Daily Journal.