Br. Michael Charron, OFM

His law degree in sight, Br. Michael Charron is not quite ready to relax.

With finals behind him, Michael is a lot less stressed than he was in December. But there’s one more hurdle to clear. “I’m not going to be anything in the future if I don’t pass the bar,” he says, referring to the lengthy exam that will test his mind and his mettle – and officially make him a lawyer.

Appalachia Law School building

Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, VA

That was the goal three years ago when he entered Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., a quiet town of 1,000 in the hills of Southwest Virginia. “We have a Wal-Mart, a Chinese restaurant, and a movie theater that is subsidized by the county,” so distractions from studies are few. “It has pretty much everything you need but not everything you want.”

At 43, Michael is one of the more mature third-year students; most come here straight from college. He is the only friar on campus and one of a handful of worshippers at nearby St. Joseph’s Parish, which boasts six parking spots. Obviously, “I’m not living in a Catholic world here.” Each Saturday the contract priest, a native of the Philippines, welcomes 10-15 souls to weekly Mass.

Lacking the support system some brothers enjoy, Michael has managed to prevail, absorbing the finer points of Torts, Contracts and Civil Procedures and learning how Family, Criminal and Constitutional Law relate to the people he plans to represent.

His head filled with facts and legal precedents, “I can help the poor in a lot of ways.”

Finding focus

When he enrolled in 2016, “I started out wanting to do immigration law. Then I wanted to do criminal law. I’ve also been interested in family law,” especially since his internship in 2017 with the Hamilton County (Ohio) Court of Domestic Relations. “I just kind of need to see what people need. Once I figure that out I’ll specialize in an area.”

Michael with Judge Amy Searcy

Michael interned with Judge Amy Searcy during the summer of 2017.

An interest in law was always there, fanned in high school by the Ohio Mock Trial program, a statewide competition in which students argue cases before a panel of judges. “Back in 1999 I did a career assessment with a guy at church, and we came up with ‘Lawyer’” as a likely profession. It seemed like a good fit. “It’s very practical,” says Michael, a practical guy. “People always need attorneys. If you read the paper, almost everything has something to do with law.”

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, “I needed to start working, so I got a paralegal certificate and a job at Fifth Third Bank. That’s when I started discerning with friars.” Solemnly professed in 2014, he spent three years in Chicago at Catholic Theological Union before choosing this nontraditional path.

Although law school was challenging, “I think I’ve learned I can take on a lot.”

Law and order

The teachers were demanding, he admits, but nothing like the classroom tyrants portrayed on TV. “We didn’t have any of that really bad Socratic method,” with the exception of one professor who liked putting students on the spot. “Everything else was the typical setting of lectures and taking notes,” with cases assigned for study and presentation.

Among his peers, Michael’s status as a friar was no big deal. “Some people know what it is and show me more respect. Some people have zero idea of what it is to be a friar. If people ask, I tell them. Because I live by myself I fall into a ‘normal student’ category.”

Law students in class

Law students focus on the instructor.

Along with fellow students he has dissected crimes, evidence, wills and estates, and plowed through the complex field of torts, wrongful civil acts (such as car accidents) that can result in liability. “A lot of the procedure classes I found interesting,” he says. “Civil Procedure is how a case evolves from start to finish. Criminal Procedure is all the things police can and can’t do when they arrest and question you.”

There’s a lot to remember. “What we’ve learned,” Michael says, “is that for each case, you boil it down to an issue. That issue has finite parameters,” whether it involves a crime or a contract. “You dial into the issue and look at what the law says about it, and what other cases say about the issue.” From that, you frame your argument.

As Michael knows, people’s lives and livelihoods depend upon lawyers getting things right, particularly in criminal cases. “Our constitutional right is to be free, and to take away that constitutional right is a big deal. You have to make sure that person did everything they’re accused of doing. It should be difficult to take away their freedom, but it happens all the time” to those with limited means.

“Justice for all” is a noble concept, but it doesn’t always work for the poor. “People get accused of a crime and they don’t have a lawyer.” Michael’s goal is to level the playing field.

Steeped in studies

Br. Michael in the Law Library

Br. Michael in the Law Library

But first things first. In these last months of school before his May 4 graduation as a Juris Doctor, “I’m taking an easy semester and turning it into studying heavily for the Ohio Bar Exam,” July 30-31 in Columbus, Ohio. Even the pre-test screening is intense. For the “character and fitness” portion, Michael says, “They do a background check. They look at every place you’ve lived since the age of 18, all your jobs for the past 10 years, any parking or speeding tickets you’ve gotten, any credit problems, whether you were ever suspended from high school.”

As for the notoriously difficult exam, which consists of essays and multiple-choice questions, “The volume of what you have to know is incredible. They say that when you take the bar you know the most law you’re ever going to know.”

Fueled by faith and focused on his mission, Michael is determined to succeed.

“Each semester has been tough,” he says, “and I’ve been able to get through it.”

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