Graduating Student Chris Wimbush Builds Bridge to Real-World Law
After graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law, Chris Wimbush will be clerking for a judge on the "Rocket Docket" — the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, nicknamed for its rapid handling of cases. It's a prestigious job, but it also suits Wimbush's nature. In his three years here, he hurtled through an impressive list of activities, from organizing a business proposal competition to conducting research with professors. But his biggest impact may be in connecting the Law School community to high-profile policymakers who are practicing what Wimbush himself aspires to do: understand how laws affect real people.
"It's very easy, when you get to this level of thinking about law, to lose sight of how the things that we worry about affect real people," Wimbush said. "I'd like to be good at helping both the lawyers and the policymakers understand how what they do affects ordinary people, and help non-lawyers understand our motivations as well."
As president of the Student Legal Forum, Wimbush helped facilitate that intellectual discourse at the Law School by bringing prominent public figures to speak to students. The forum's list of speakers this year included former White House Counsel Robert Bauer '76, now general counsel to Obama's re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee; former climate change czar Carol Browner, who also headed the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration; and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton '94.
"We as a team made the judgment that, 'Let's just ask people and see what happens,'" he said. "We tried to take advantage of the fact that there are so many amazing UVA Law graduates floating around in the world doing pretty awesome things."
The strategy, including working connections Virginia Law professors had to high-profile lawyers, paid off, and gave Wimbush a blueprint for the kind of lawyer he wants to be.
"I'd like to be good at connecting the abstract of what we learn in law school to real life," he said.
Wimbush grew interested in becoming a lawyer fairly young. His father, who grew up in Martinsville, Va., worked as in-house counsel for a string of food and beverage corporations across the country, including Hershey, Pillsbury ("Take your child to work day was amazing," Wimbush said.), and the parent company to Guinness and other beverage subsidiaries.
"[My dad] said, 'I became a lawyer because I didn't want to be poor anymore,'" Wimbush recalled. "He wanted [me and my brother] to be lawyers, but he was always very good at saying 'I want you to explore different opportunities.'"
Wimbush said his own interest was sparked by seeing the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton on TV. He soon began reading about how government worked, the president's cabinet and other topics on politics.
"It definitely started with an appreciation for the process and the theater of politics," he said. "Over time, however, I began to realize that politics and policy were sort of the biggest way to have an impact, both positive and negative, as the last few years have shown." He liked the idea that "you can shape the rules and fashion them in a way that benefits huge chunks of society."
He majored in political science with a focus on public policy and a minor in psychology at George Washington University, where he was able to intern at D.C. lobbying firms, around the same time a number of lobbying-related scandals were brewing.
"I was able to think about those types of situations more thoughtfully because I had seen the other side of lobbying and knew there was a positive way to do it as well," he said. At his internships with the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet and the Consumer Electronics Association he saw "good people advocating for what they believed in."
He also co-founded a political magazine, GW Discourse, and served as chief justice of the student court, which monitored student elections. After a brief "mid-college crisis" during which he pondered whether to pursue a career in the media instead, his father nudged him gently back on track by giving him a book on the First Amendment, ostensibly to help him explore his interest in running a magazine. Wimbush liked the sections focused on law more than those focused on media, and soon applied early decision to Virginia.
Wimbush said he found the common experience of law students a refreshing change from his undergraduate years.
"I wasn't the only one up late working on our Legal Research and Writing memo and I wasn't the only one stressing about Contracts multiple choice exam questions. Everyone was going through the same thing," he said.
He also liked the subject matter of constitutional law, and the pragmatic way it helps resolve tough questions in our democratic system.
"A lot of people say, oh, it's just the justices making things up," he said. "I disagree. I think it's the justices making policy choices in some cases, and as someone who studied policy and appreciates the idea that you have to make choices and you have to draw lines and you have to make standards — and some people are going to like them and some people won't — I like that about con law."
After his first year, Wimbush became more deeply involved in exploring legal questions connected to real-world issues, both through directed and independent research projects. He worked with Professor David Martin on his scholarship analyzing the evolution of federal inspectors general. Wimbush also worked with Professor Margaret Foster Riley to write his own 60-page paper on the Affordable Care Act's Independent Payment Advisory Board, dubbed by opponents as the "death panel" — a group of experts who make recommendations on reimbursements and what should be covered by Medicare and other government health programs.
"I push back and say that the government has always been involved in health care in a meaningful way, but health care continues to be a special area about which people are incredibly passionate and I wanted to take a look at why," said Wimbush, who may try to publish the paper, depending on what the Supreme Court rules about the act's legality.
Riley said Wimbush compared the board to other similarly politically sensitive groups to examine how it might be successful, such as the commission that helped decide which U.S. military bases should close in 2005.
"It was an innovative way of looking at it," Riley said.
In the First Amendment Clinic this semester, Wimbush also helped put together a petition to the Supreme Court and a motion to Chief Justice John Roberts to stay the judgment in a case involving a free speech dispute between a woman and the U.S. Forest Service.
"To have that sort of practical experience has been incredibly useful," he said.
Outside of the classroom, Wimbush also invested heavily in the school's student life and continued to build bridges to real-world issues — he was submissions editor for the Virginia Journal of Law & Technology, and in his second year served as the career services chair for the Black Law Students Association. In the fall he ran the Law School round of the UVA Entrepreneurship Cup, a business competition in which about 30 law students competed in teams and individually. The winning team for the Law School round, which proposed a business plan to implement a water purification system they designed, won an honorable mention and a $5,000 prize. (More)
"There's a perception that lawyers aren't necessarily the most creative or business-focused," he said. "I thought there was a tremendous amount of talent in the business space."
Riley said she was amazed at Wimbush's level of engagement in law school life.
"I often didn't understand how he could do it all, but he actually did, and he did it well," she said. "He's interested in everything and he has a very strong sense of service, both generally in terms of public service, but also toward individual classmates. And he's just funny — he's fun to be with. He's someone you enjoy having lunch with and talking about everything."
Wimbush worked at the law firm Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., his first summer and split his second summer between the firm and interning for Virginia Supreme Court Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn '86.
"It was great to build a relationship with Justice Goodwyn, as well as his clerks," he said.
The experience encouraged him to move forward in pursuing a clerkship after law school as well. He landed a job with Judge Raymond Jackson '73, whom he also helped bring to the Law School in April to speak on federal sentencing guidelines in drug cases (More).
"I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work there. It's a very challenging time for the legal market," said Wimbush, who added that he thinks Jackson will be a great mentor. "If you really want your rights litigated quickly but professionally, it's a good district — expedited schedules, reasonable discovery periods. They've developed a reputation for being very efficient. I'm going to learn a lot at the court and I think it's going to be very useful later on in my career."
After his clerkship concludes he plans to return to Patton Boggs, where he will focus on litigation and communications work.
Wimbush, who didn't take a break between college and law school, said he'll miss being on his own schedule, but appreciates how the lessons he learned in law school will help him moving forward.
"There's a lot of diversity of thought on a lot of different issues, and it's so easy to get worked up in shouting matches, but you recognize that's not the most effective way to make an argument in the legal profession. I think until you get to law school that's harder to see and understand," he said.
Wimbush said he will miss the free-flowing — sometimes random — intellectual discussions that came to define his student experience.
"There really won't be a ton of time to [debate] how far we think the Commerce Clause should go unless you're involved in the Commerce Clause in your job," he said with a chuckle.
Wimbush said his three years at Virginia Law also taught him the need for work-life balance.
"Work is not everything, although I'm sure it will come close," he said. "However, I think UVA taught me that you still need to take breaks and enjoy life, and you can still care about other things. Unfortunately with the economy now, it's an incredibly tough balance."
Wimbush predicted the Student Legal Forum will remain a force in event programming at the Law School. After he stepped down as president, the new leaders snagged pundit Tucker Carlson, who last month discussed the 2012 presidential race. (More)
"I think the forum is in really strong shape. I think it's due to a lot of people over the past couple years working pretty hard to build it back up. It has a great place in the Law School moving forward," he said. "I'm glad that we can have a small role in making the Law School a pretty dynamic place to engage on the issues that matter. It was a great year on that front."