Two law graduates overcome great obstacles to get degrees, inspire others

They have significant handicaps – but both have law degrees.

jstancill@newsobserver.comMay 20, 2012 

Law school can be a grinding, humbling experience, one requiring stamina, mental toughness and flat-out hard work.

This month, hundreds of students are graduating from North Carolina’s seven law schools, into a bad job market and an uncertain future. But if they start feeling a little gloomy, they can reflect on the experience of two fellow graduates who overcame enormous odds just to roll through the law school doors.

For these two, earning a law school diploma is pure joy. For others, the experience of Monique Johnson and Patrick Newman is sweet inspiration.

Monique Johnson

Monique Johnson’s personality is expansive, though she stands about 2 feet tall.

She has a rare form of dwarfism and a severe case of scoliosis. When she was born, her family was told she probably wouldn’t live beyond the age of 6. Her spine is so curved that it threatens to affect her breathing or, at worst, collapse her lungs.

“The doctors are amazed that I’m not paralyzed or even dead,” said Johnson, 25, who graduates Sunday from Elon University’s law school.

Growing up in Winston-Salem, Johnson and her family insisted on full participation. She sang in her grandmother’s church. She was part of a marching band; dancers would carry her, and when the band stopped, they would put her down so she could perform with them.

“Because I viewed myself as just an ordinary person, I went into school with that attitude,” she said. “I’m pretty much a jokester; I love making people laugh. Because of that, my personality latched onto a lot of the students there. Once kids love you in first grade they follow you on up.”

Johnson admits she’s strong-willed, stubborn even. She can’t stand it when someone suggests she might not be able to do something.

“I would have people say, ‘Oh, maybe she needs to go to a special school for people with disabilities.’ I wanted to show them, ‘No, I want to go to a regular public school.’ One of the ways that I was able to show them I belonged there was to do well academically.”

She knew her brainpower would fuel her future.

Johnson earned her undergraduate degree from N.C. A&T State University in four years. She has finished law school in the typical three.

Eric Fink, an Elon law professor who taught Johnson civil procedure and labor law, said her classmates quickly looked beyond her disability.

“The thing that really impressed me from the start is just the extent to which she really projects a lot of self confidence in a real, good positive way,” Fink said. “This is a young woman who did not allow her condition to have her shrink into the background or hide. She’s there in class; she’s engaged in class; she would participate very actively in class discussions.”

She managed it all with the help of her parents and four sisters. She lives in a Greensboro apartment with her sister Melissa, an N.C. A&T student who helps her with transportation and other needs.

Johnson uses a motorized wheelchair that she calls her “batmobile,” her smart phone dangling from the controls. When not studying, she paints on large canvases or blocks of wood. She sells her work on the Web, partly to finance her education.

Yes, life is discouraging sometimes. The main frustration is depending on others so much, she said.

Johnson doesn’t yet have a job, but her career goals have shifted somewhat. Originally, she wanted to be a judge. She’s still interested in criminal law, but she also wants to advocate for disability rights. And she’s really jazzed by motivational speaking in schools and churches.

She has moved beyond proving people’s preconceptions wrong. Somewhere along the way, she realized that her story had a real impact on others.

“I realize my purpose is not all about me and what I can prove to other people,” she said. “It’s more about motivating and inspiring others and helping others to achieve their dreams.”

Patrick Newman

When Patrick Newman was in middle school, a teacher told him he ought to be a lawyer.

I think I will, he responded.

“I could argue with a wall if it would talk at me,” Newman said last week. “Of course you get to law school and there’s more to it than that.”

There’s way more to it if you’re Newman, who was born without arms and has scoliosis. Newman, 26, graduated from Campbell University’s law school on May 11.

Now he’s setting his sights on the bar exam, and like many of his classmates, a job.

Newman has been in a wheelchair since he was 2; he needs assistance with transportation, eating, dressing and personal care. His mother moved to Raleigh to live with him while he attended Campbell. He uses public transportation and has a personal attendant to help him at times throughout the day.

Otherwise, Newman whips around the downtown law school, operating his chair with a joystick.

“These feet are good for a lot of things,” he said. “I can write with them. I can drive the wheelchair; I can hold things.”

He plays video games, too. His favorite is Mass Effect 2.

When Newman was born, his mother, Renne Newman, said she didn’t think he would go to kindergarten. But the family made a decision early on that they would figure it out and do whatever it took for Patrick.

“He’s had a very good work ethic,” she said. “He’s had some challenges. He also has many talents and assets.”

He attended public schools in Carteret County, where occasionally the Newmans had to push for changes. Each school had to install automatic door openers.

Now, Newman said, those door openers are there for students who follow him. “Having to fight the battles can be interesting sometimes, but it’s worthwhile doing it,” he said.

He majored in politics at St. Andrews Presbyterian College, which had a fully accessible campus and 24/7 care for disabled students.

With the assistance of note takers and typists, Newman excelled. “There were times I started questioning it,” he said of the experience. “I don’t think anyone is really prepared to come to law school, in a sense, because you don’t know just how much work it’s going to be.”

The secret to his success: “God. Family. Church. I have a huge support network. I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own, that’s just plain and simple. But it does take a good bit of determination even for people who don’t have disabilities.”

One of the highlights was his internship the summer before last, when he worked with N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, where he reviewed cases and did database research. The experience convinced him that he wanted to do criminal and constitutional work.

Renne Newman said advances in technology have opened up new avenues for people with physical challenges, including Patrick. “If you can digitize it, the world is his,” she said.

That may be a key to Newman’s job hunt. With the reasonable accommodation of voice-activated technology, Newman said he can perform to any firm’s standards. “We’re just as capable, and we have to overcome the perception that we’re not,” he said.

No matter the dismal job market, Newman said he will find a way to make it work, as he always has.

“I don’t want to start my own law firm if I don’t have to,” he said. “But I will if I have to because I didn’t come here not to practice.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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