A Team Effort for Law School Success
Steven Okoye had a plan for attending law school, but when life circumstances required a change in plans, he took the challenge head-on to make everything work for him and his family.
Okoye, who will graduate from the Rutgers Law School’s Camden location on May 18, had to handle some unexpected, but joyful, family responsibilities while pursuing his degree.
When Okoye was admitted to Rutgers Law School in 2013, he was a biotechnician at Merck and Company in West Point, Pa. His original plan was to continue working full-time while attending law school part-time. In the summer of 2013, he participated in the school’s Jump Start Program, which gives first-year law students an opportunity to take core courses before their first semester officially begins. Okoye made the one-hour-and-45-minute commute from West Point, Pa., to campus four days a week during an eight-week contracts course.
After completing the course, Okoye realized it would be very difficult to juggle a full-time job and make the long commute to and from campus, so he decided to defer his start at the law school until the fall of 2014. His new plan was to quit his job and attend classes full-time.
In the winter of 2014, Okoye and his wife, Eron, found out she was pregnant with their first child. “I was wondering if I made the right decision to defer for a year and now we have another mouth to feed,” said Okoye. “We kind of geared ourselves towards saving up everything that we could so that when our baby arrived it would be a little bit easier just to transition into it.”
In October of that year, just a couple of months after starting law school, their daughter, Maria, was born.
“It was a blessing,” said Okoye. “But, it was hard.”
At the time, his wife was in her third year of medical school and doing rotations at a hospital in New York City, so after she returned to work, she lived in New York on the weekdays and returned to their Williamstown, N.J. home on the weekends. On the weekdays, Okoye was their daughter’s primary caretaker.
“It was a little difficult because by the time the semester was over, I contemplated, ‘should I drop out?’ because I don’t know if I can manage all of this at one time,” Okoye said. “I sat down with Professor Rick Swedloff, and he said to make sure to gather myself during that winter break.”
During the break, he and his family came up with a plan. His father, Fidelis, would care for the baby while Okoye was in class, and when he returned home, he would take over. “It was kind of like, everybody rolled up their sleeves, and we were all going to figure out a way to work as a team to get this done.”
“I would feed her, and I would literally have my text book open,” said Okoye. “I would hold her and I would play like I was reading to her.”
At Rutgers Law, in addition to taking classes, he spent the summer of 2015 working as a legal intern at Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia. He was a law clerk at the Swartz Campbell firm in Philadelphia. In the summer of 2016, he was an intern at Archer Law in Haddonfield. He is now completing a semester as a judicial extern for Judge Paula Dow of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division.
A member of the Black Students Law Association (BLSA), he served as its vice president in the 2015-16 school year. As a second-year law student, he and his moot court partner, Sadé Cailin, won the best brief award in the Frederick Douglass Moot Court Competition.
Okoye also found time to mentor fellow law students as one of the Minority Student Program’s fellows, offering tips on test-taking and tutoring students on topics such as civil procedure.
He also was a managing technology editor of the Journal of Law and Public Policy.
“His accomplishments hint at, but don’t necessarily convey, the way in which Steven has been a steady leader, an academic mentor, and a calm voice of reason with so many law students,” said Ruth Anne Robbins, distinguished clinical professor of law. Robbins taught Okoye in his first and third years.
Reflecting on his time in law school and balancing classes, extracurricular activities, and work and family obligations, Okoye believes his experience is not unique.
“Everyone has their own obstacles to jump over,” said Okoye. “Mine was having a baby while in law school. Others might have other things to deal with during their law school years.”
Okoye credits his experience during the past three years for helping him become more organized and driven, which will serve him well in his law career and family life. “There are ways to figure out balance and still be able to be productive while going through the challenges of life.”
In August, Okoye begins working as a law clerk for Judge Thomas Sumners Jr. of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. Eventually, he would like to work on mergers and acquisitions.