People find themselves drawn to law school and to the practice of law for a wide variety of reasons. Hunter Peterson, a student at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV, found himself thinking about law school after a stint with the Peace Corps in Africa left him 70 pounds lighter with his body decimated by loathsome parasites. His young wife was suffering through medical issues from the recent birth of their new daughter. Not exactly the “Dad, I’ve decided to take a year off backpacking in Europe before going back to school” kind of life arc.
“I was in Guinea in West Africa and I was genuinely having a terrible time not being able to work on the issues that I was passionate about,” Peterson recalled. “Poor water, not enough food. I ate rice and raw peanuts a lot of the time. One of the family farms I was trying to help with burned down, and I got a few burns trying to put out the fires.
“At the same time there was a real child and spousal abuse issue there, which I wasn’t allowed to work on. Trying to keep the bugs off you while lying down in the shelter at night listening to kids being beaten outside is emotionally scarring. I realized the best use of my time was to come back home to Wyoming and start planning to go to law school.”
As improbable as it sounds, while Peterson was in Africa, on the other side of the world there was a new scholarship in its infancy that practically had Peterson’s name on it.
The funding the scholarship and some of the core ideals behind it were being framed out among Daniel Hamilton, dean of the Boyd School of Law, and Sam Mirejovsky and Ashley Watkins of the Sam & Ash law firm. The idea was rather novel. Rather than a sole focus on scholastic achievement — though that would be part of the criteria — this scholarship would target students with professional, working life experience outside of the classroom for at least one year after college.
The result was the Sam & Ash Scholarship program, a series of renewable scholarships supporting the Boyd School of Law. The hope was that these students would bring a sense of direction in life as well as empathy for their future clients.
“I personally went to law school later in life,” said Mirejovsky. “I stepped away, I started a business, I worked in the legal industry. I got distracted. I had to go back and be a law student as a bit of an older adult.
“I recognized very quickly that it’s a hard thing to have to go from earning a paycheck and paying rent and having a family to support to going back and having to pay for an expensive education. It’s hard to re-enter. It’s a tough thing to do.”
Tough, but that life experience also brought with it the advantages of a much broader context of what it means to be productive.
“I looked around and noticed that other students who had done the same thing as me, who had stepped away for a period of time and got some real-life experience, brought something different to the classroom,” Mirejovsky said. “I saw them graduating and they hit the ground running. They had contacts, they had jobs lined up because they had been in the workforce and they knew what to do.”
For her part, Watkins said the year she took off between college and law school changed the entire direction of her education — which ultimately changed the course of her life.
“During that year I worked at my father’s law firm clerking for him on a variety of cases,” Watkins said. “I also coached high school basketball at my alma mater. Like Sam, I realized that year gave me valuable life experience. It taught me how to interact with other lawyers, how to manage life inside of a law firm, how to lead players on a basketball team.
“So I recognize the value that time between schooling provides. It truly does create a practice-ready lawyer upon graduation from law school. And I would hate for anyone to miss out on pursuing their dream of becoming a lawyer because of any potential financial hurdles that going to back to school may cause. That was the genesis of why we like this type of scholarship.”
Mirejovsky was deep into his career when he saw a different path.
“I was an operating officer of a big firm as a non-lawyer,” he said. “I was responsible for staffing and I mentored new lawyers hired by the firm. I can’t tell you how many times we had someone come in who had spent $150,000 on their education and then decided they really didn’t want to be a lawyer. That’s the wrong time to make that decision.”
Sam and Ash and Dean Hamilton also realized that in addition to helping individual students, this type of scholarship could be something of a breakthrough for the community as a whole. The attraction of this type of financial incentive might be the deciding factor in bringing a great deal of human potential that otherwise might never call Las Vegas home.
It definitely worked for Peterson. The scholarship breathed new life into his hopes for continuing his education. His post-Africa stresses were only the beginning of his challenges.
“Upon becoming the recipient of this scholarship, my first reaction was relief, particularly with coronavirus hitting at the same time,” Peterson said. “Just the fact that my family knew for sure we could get a lease, we would have gas money to get there, we wouldn’t have to scrimp and save for groceries for three months. We could actually come down here and live our lives. It was a huge relief.”
What originally appeared to be a clear path had to be reconsidered when the realities of the pandemic changed everything, according to Mirejovsky.
“We proposed it before Covid hit,’ Mirejovsky said. “When the shutdown came, and it was obviously a very difficult time for everyone including us, we made the difficult decision to go forward with this commitment we had made and formalized it. We felt that the need would be even greater as many people saw that maybe this would be a good time to change their career, to make them more inclined to maybe go back to school.
“We never thought a pandemic would come along and force so many Americans to rethink their careers, but it did.”
Dean Hamilton said the Sam & Ash Scholarship will become a beacon in coming years to other highly motivated, mid-career students to take a closer look at the potential the Boyd School of Law and the Las Vegas community could hold for their future.
“Hunter is Exhibit A for the kind of impact that this generous scholarship can create. Hunter is from Wyoming, he excelled in college, he went to the Peace Corps and worked in biotech before coming to law school,” Dean Hamilton said. “He’s just exceptionally well-qualified. His application is extremely impressive. He could have gone mostly anywhere. The opportunity to come in with a named scholarship is what makes the difference and what enables Boyd to recruit students like Hunter, who contribute a great deal to the law school and to Las Vegas, and in many cases stay in Las Vegas for their careers. If you add five students each and every year, that becomes a large cohort of Sam & Ash Scholarship students whose lives have been changed by this generosity.”
On a sunny late fall day at an open-air lunch with Dean Peterson, Sam and Ash and Hunter Peterson finally had a chance to meet. The attorneys had no role in the selection process, but they were moved by Peterson’s story.
“One of the results of this pandemic was that it created much more of a financial need for so many people,” Watkins said. “As a law school, for UNLV to have this additional financial incentive to attract great candidates, it’s one of the reasons Hunter ended up here. He was evaluating other options and when it came down to financials, he was looking for where he would have the best situation. It was really rewarding to have a role in that and attract a great candidate to Las Vegas who might have otherwise gone somewhere else.
“I hope that 20 years from now we’re in a position where the scholarship has increased, and that it has also propelled these recipients into the legal community and has inspired them to give back either financially or with time, with a mentorship, and to pay it forward.”
Peterson said the scholarship was the difference between shifting from goals to focusing on achievements.
“It was the scale. After seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling it in one of the poorest places in the world, it really gave me new perspective of what I wanted for myself, what I wanted for my family, and the scale of issues I could work on,” he said. “I don’t know if I can ever save the world, but if I can help people one client at a time, that’s what I want to do.”
“Twenty years ago there wasn’t a law school in Nevada,” Dean Hamilton said. “Now there are 2,000-plus alums and one in four active lawyers in the state is a Boyd graduate. The speaker of the Assembly and the Senate majority leader are Boyd grads, along with more and more judges. Support from Sam & Ash is a difference maker in drawing top students to the law school. That’s what we need to keep the momentum going.
“There is also a multiplier effect. Imagine the great good a student like Hunter will do over a 40- to 50-year career and all of the people who will benefit from them being his lawyer, then multiply that by five students this year, 10 next year and 15 the year after that. That quickly becomes a huge ripple effect as law students who might have gone to other law schools join us and have legal careers in Las Vegas and in Nevada that would not have been possible without this scholarship support.”