Law school is hard, but it’s not quite the same kind of hard as carrying a pack that’s more than half your body weight alongside a company of Marines for 12 miles and sleeping with ice packs taped to your shins to recover.
Elizabeth Dobbins, who will graduate May 19 from the University of Virginia School of Law, can check both items off her life list.
Dobbins, the first woman who will graduate from U.Va. Law after earning an undergraduate degree from Virginia Military Institute, will serve as a judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps. A first lieutenant, Dobbins has signed on for a five-year commitment in the Marines after law school, which will start with nine months of further training.
“You think if you have a tolerance for difficulty, then you can do anything difficult,” Dobbins said, but “law school’s difficult in a different way.”
Looking back, Dobbins said her intellectual horizons have vastly broadened.
“My head feels so soaked, heavy – I don’t know, expanded,” she said. “My first year here, I felt literally that my brain was changing, like I was exhausted every night from all the intellectual effort it took to learn and think anew. At the end of your three years here your whole understanding of the world has just exploded – which is cool – and you wonder what else there is that you can absorb.”
Dobbins’ dream of joining the military formed as a Navy brat, when her dad, who retired as a lieutenant commander working in intelligence, shuttled Dobbins, her mom and two sisters around the world, including Indiana, Saudi Arabia and Howard County, Md., Dobbins’ last stop before college.
“I really never considered a different career course,” she said. “As soon as I matriculated at VMI, I just got it in my head that I’d like to be a judge advocate.”
Dobbins was one of 20 women in a class of 268 to graduate in 2010. But those numbers tell only part of the story; the class winnowed down from 399 men and 43 women when she matriculated. At the time Dobbins started at VMI, other military academies had been accepting women for 30 years, whereas VMI only opened to women in 1997.
“In my four years I saw every year improve for women,” she said. “By the time my freshman mentees matriculated at VMI, any [sexist] attitude that remained was more subtle, which was an improvement.”
VMI maintains one of the most spartan environments for military colleges. Upon entrance, every freshman’s hair is cut “really, really, really short,” Dobbins explained. Makeup is not allowed, and civilian clothes are generally not permitted on campus. Freshmen – called “rats” – sleep on a rolled-up mat on top of a wooden bed frame, and may display only one photo.
But Dobbins found incredible camaraderie with her classmates.
“They would help me shine my shoes, they would ask me if I was OK. I mean, we just all took care of each other,” she said. “These guys were and still are like my brothers.”
In high school, Dobbins said, she spent more time on her appearance in the morning than on homework. “Then to go to that environment where it’s totally washed away, it felt like all the superficial elements of life that didn’t matter were not required. I was able to focus on who I was going to be,” she said.
Dobbins majored in international studies and modern languages (she was fluent in French, and can read Arabic). She excelled at VMI, where she won the Spirit Award in ROTC her senior year, and in the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, which she completed as an honor graduate over two summers at Quantico.
“It’s everything that you would imagine Marine Corps Officer Candidate School is – really intense, and nonstop, and no sleep, and physically, impossibly demanding – and awesome,” she said. “There’s just something about being thrown together in the suffering with other people that just can’t be replicated. You come to know the intricacies of what motivates other humans in a way that you would just never have cause to learn about before.”
Dobbins, who is 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 105 pounds, felt triumphant when she met or exceeded the physical demands.
“The days where you do the stuff that you think you – in the midst of it – really are not physically going to be able to do, and then you do it, it’s magical, it’s transcendent,” she said. “And the suffering is kind of good.”
At Virginia Law, Dobbins found herself facing a whole new set of challenges.
“Initially – and I think a lot of my classmates shared this – I felt so intimidated. I just felt really inadequate, I guess, surrounded by all of this genius, and ambition and experience,” she said. “But I think that’s a great thing about a school like U.Va. Everybody feels that way, no matter what you came from. It’s necessarily humbling, and everybody rubs off on each other.”
Dobbins soon became heavily involved in law school life, including with the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, the National Veterans Law Moot Court competition and Virginia Law Veterans. Last fall, she was named one of the recipients of the Mary Claiborne and Roy H. Ritter Prize, a monetary award applied toward recipients’ tuition and given to students embodying the values of honor, integrity and character. Dobbins has also served as co-chair of Feminist Legal Forum, a class agent and as a Kaplan bar review representative. In her second year, she studied family law in Sri Lanka as part of the Human Rights Study Project, and she completed the Law School’s Pro Bono Challenge by volunteering more than 80 hours.
“I love legal aid,” she said. “I break my heart for our clients.”
This year she took the Prosecution Clinic, through which she prosecuted cases in rural Goochland County General District Court. She found common ground with the mostly male group of attorneys and police officers through a shared military background, and with one of the judges over their mutual adoration of “Downton Abbey.”
An avid writer, Dobbins wrote columns for the Charlottesville newspaper The Daily Progress during law school, on top of working 20 hours a week in various roles at the JAG School, for Special Collections in the U.Va. law library, and as a student coordinator for the Human Rights Program.
During her first-year summer she served active duty in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, primarily on administrative separations, which are like mini-trials for Marines who are discharged.
“You have to make an opening statement, call witnesses, examine your witnesses, cross-examine the other witnesses and make a closing argument,” Dobbins said, sometimes all in three to eight hours.
Her second summer, with a third-year practice certificate in hand, she worked on behalf of indigent clients at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond on housing issues.
“I learned a lot – I feel like I could take a client who had a landlord-tenant issue to court right now and I would know exactly what law to cite and I would know which arguments would fly and which wouldn’t,” she said. “I almost felt like I had my own clients.”
After work, she would rush back to Charlottesville for tap-dancing class at Live Arts, alongside high school-aged youths and older adults. It was one more way to relax and connect with a community she’s grown to love.
“Charlottesville’s just too inspiring to not enjoy it,” she said. “I don’t know how it would be if you went to law school in a city or a place that you didn’t love. Just these mountains, and the University and the red brick, and the columns and the flowers and the festivals, and the farmer’s market – I mean, you can’t not be inspired at least sometimes.”
Dobbins won’t get the results from her bar exam in time to start her training right away, so she’ll work at the National Association of Attorneys General in the meantime. In January she expects to start the Marine Corps’ Basic School, where her body will be tested even further. Two of her female classmates from Officer Candidate School (together they graduated as the top three students in the class) have already let her know that the gear – helmet, flak jacket, pack – can add up to about 100 pounds.
Following Quantico, she’ll spend three months in Rhode Island at the Marines’ JAG School, after which she’ll get her first assignment to a base. Dobbins said she’s looking forward to learning about areas of law ranging from criminal to corporate law.
“You really have the opportunity to get exposed to a lot of different topics, which is really exciting, because then ideally you come out and you have a broad knowledge base.”
Dobbins’ final year in law school was also marked by the Defense Department’s lifting of the ban on women in combat.
“I think we shouldn’t recognize gender differences in the military. We should hold everyone to the same standard,” she said, “I support getting rid of the ban on women in combat because it’s all about labeling. Women are in combat, they’ve been in combat. Women have won Silver Stars for being in combat in the last 10 years.”
Before then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in January that the ban would be lifted, several U.Va. law students and Professor Anne Coughlin worked together as part of the Molly Pitcher Project on a lawsuit challenging the Department of Defense on the issue. Dobbins, Coughlin said, served as a model for the effort.
“She’s smart and strong and fit and competent,” Coughlin said. “She is cool under pressure, grounded and sensible, just a natural leader. She was exactly the kind of person we had in mind when thinking about how the world would be better off if artificial barriers based on sex were eliminated,” Coughlin said. “We turned to her to test our intuitions that the policies excluding women were wrong.”
Coughlin said Dobbins gave them advice and helped expand their network of contacts and stakeholders.
Coughlin also praised Dobbins’ leadership as co-chair of the Feminist Legal Forum. “They had a tremendously successful year under her leadership,” she said, and organized events that were “nuanced and thoughtful.”
Dobbins is “one of those students who functioned as a colleague from the moment she arrived here, for her professors as well as her classmates,” Coughlin said. “It’s hard to imagine next year here without her.”