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Family law: Father, daughter attend law school together

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David Wyatt with his daughter, Jennifer, celebrate David's graduation from Campbell Law School. David, 52, enrolled in law school in 2014 after working more than 15 years as a probation officer. “A lot of people have told me (that) to see somebody at my age do something like that is encouraging to them, but I didn't do it for that reason," he said. “It was just something that I always wanted to do. ... It is literally the hardest thing I've ever done, and there were many days I wished I hadn't done it after I started, (but) not on graduation day."

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By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Jennifer Wyatt knew that attending the same law school as her father had the potential for both risks and rewards. On the plus side, she could be sure her dad could relate to the challenges she faced because he had been there. But she also understood that she might be setting herself up for comparison from professors who remembered having David Wyatt in their classes — the year before.

For the last two years, David and Jennifer have been more than just father and daughter. The two have been fellow students at the Campbell University School of Law.

David, 52, graduated in May and is scheduled to take the Bar exam next month. Jennifer, 24, will begin her third year in August.

While it is nothing unusual for children to attend the same college as their parents — President Trump’s youngest daughter, Tiffany, graduated from his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, last year — attending together is a different matter.

Campbell Law School Dean Rich Leonard said the Wyatts’ simultaneous enrollment appears to be unprecedented in the law school’s more than 40-year history.

“We do have family members (enrolled),” he said. “Often siblings follow each other to law school. But I can’t recall an instance where we actually had a father (and daughter).”

There are extenuating circumstances that led David, a Greenville probation officer, and Jennifer, an East Carolina University social work graduate, to become schoolmates at the Raleigh law school.

David, a Goldsboro native, had dreamed of becoming an attorney for decades. He originally had hoped to attend law school after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in criminal justice, but that would not be the case.

Instead, he got married, and within a few years, David Jr. and Jennifer came along. With a family to support, David chose having a dependable job over a juris doctorate.

“It just wasn’t feasible; I had to work,” he said. “I had to wait ... to feel like it was time to make such a commitment.”

After moving to Greenville following a divorce in 2010, David began to wonder whether or not it was too late for law school. He had worked for more than 15 years as a probation officer when he decided to enroll in a University of Cincinnati online program.

“I just knew I could do that while I was working,” he said. “I knew if I did law school, it was going to have to be full time. I didn’t want to make that full-time commitment until I knew I could actually learn because I hadn’t been to school in 30 years. I wanted to make sure my brain still worked like I thought it did.”

In two years, he earned a master’s degree in criminal justice without having to quit his day job. But a year later, he began feeling convicted about not pursuing law school. David and his then-girlfriend Denice, whom he married in 2015, were attending a Covenant Church study of “Experiencing God,” by Henry Blackaby.

“One of the questions that they ask in the materials for the class is ‘Is there anything that you feel like God’s called you to do that you’ve never done?’” David recalled. “And I immediately said, ‘Go to law school.’

“I’d gotten to a point where both my kids were self-sufficient, so I figured if I was ever going to go, this was the time,” he said. “I spoke to some attorneys from around town that I had a lot of respect for, and they encouraged me to go.”

In 2014 he left his job and began spending three hours a day driving to and from Raleigh for class, sometimes opting to stay with his sister in Garner so he could work in a few more hours of study time.

“When I started, I was the oldest one there,” David said. “Campbell does have a lot of nontraditional students in their 30s, so it wasn’t all 20-year-olds, but there weren’t many past 40.

“(At that age) your brain doesn’t work quite as well as it used to in some ways,” he said. “In some ways it was a little bit harder for me. … There were a lot of times I thought ‘it sure would be easier just to go to work today at my job than to go do this.’ It took a lot of effort.”

Classmate Erin Riddick, 24, said while David was the age of many of her peers’ fathers, he was an excellent student.

“To be honest, he was one of the smartest people in the class,” she said. “I think everybody respected him. He had been out in the real world.

“He was very committed,” Riddick said. “A lot of people wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving behind a job to come to law school and not make any money for three years just to pursue a dream.”

Leonard agreed.

“Sometimes families, sometimes a career opportunity they didn’t want to turn down (keep people from pursuing law school),” he said. “It’s never too late if you have a dream and you want to pursue it. I think the inspiration of David is you can still do it. You can still figure out a way.”

By 2015, David was finally on the way to the career he had always wanted. But daughter Jennifer, who was about to graduate from ECU, had no idea where she was heading career-wise.

She had started college as a nursing major but had switched to social work about halfway through. While many of her friends were planning to stay in school to complete a master’s degree in social work, Jennifer wasn’t sold on the idea.

“I went and talked to my dad. I was really confused, really worried. I just had no idea,” Jennifer recalled. “He is the one that initially asked, ‘Have you thought about going to law school?’ At that time, it hadn’t even crossed my mind.”

While Jennifer had never mentioned law school, David knew that he and his daughter shared many of the same talents and interests. He invited her to visit Campbell Law School’s campus and to sit in on a few of his classes for a day to help build a case for law school.

Somewhere between civil procedure and tort class, Jennifer began to think that maybe her father knew best. She went home and filled out an application that same day. After graduating from ECU in May 2015, Jennifer started Campbell Law School in August.

“I’m just thankful because I don’t think that idea ever would have ever been presented to me,” she said. “I’m just this thankful that at this point in my life, I do get to start out so young and have a lot of time and a lot of opportunities ahead instead of figuring it out later.”

But following so close behind her father was not always easy. Jennifer recalls being called on the first day of class by a property law professor her father had come to know.

“My professor walked in and said, ‘Is there a Miss Wyatt in the room?’” she said, laughing. “He had no idea what I looked like. He just knew that I was somewhere in that class. So I just raised my hand. I was terrified. He said, ‘Miss Wyatt, will you stand up and tell us about the first case?’ I was mortified.

“I knew that my dad had something to do with it.”

After the unsettling introduction, for the most part, David made an effort not to interfere with his daughter’s studies. Despite the fact that they were a year apart in law school, father and daughter could have taken some electives at the same time, but they opted to avoid that type of head-to-head competition.

They did not often collaborate on coursework; David’s commute from Greenville made late-night study sessions difficult. Still, they often got together for lunch. On such a small campus, bumping into each other was virtually guaranteed.

“It’s literally 400 students there,” David said. “It’s smaller than my high school.”

Jennifer believes having her dad so close helped push her to perform at her best.

“I knew that it was going to get back around to him if I did well, or if I didn’t do well,” she said. “I just wanted, I guess, to make a good impression … We do have the same name.”

Sharing two years of law school has given father and daughter even more things in common.

“I think when we get together we drive the rest of the family crazy just talking about law school and lawyer things,” David said. “We have something in common that a lot of other people don’t.

“It’s not even like I had gone to law school 30 years ago, and she’s going now. We had the same teachers in common, the same classes in common,” he said. “So when we get together we have the same contemporary things to talk about that a lot of parents and children don’t. It does give us a really close relationship, I think.”

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