Flying high: Air Force retiree reinvents himself as a law student

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

The U.S. Air Force was Phillip Patterson’s ticket out of his native Alabama, providing the opportunity to travel and see the rest of the country and the world. Taking advantage of the Tuition Assistance program he knocked out three AA degrees and a bachelor degree, and coursework towards an Executive MBA. He also met his wife Sepideh, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran.

But after a long career in the USAF, and then running his own property management business, Patterson needed a physical and mental break, taking semi-retirement in Mexico. “All I had known for 20 years was military service and I didn’t take time afterwards to really do some self-care and soul searching,” he says. “Moving to Mexico for 10 months was a great experience. The opportunity to learn first-hand about another culture, and the opportunity to reflect on what I value was just what I needed.”

When Patterson moved back north of the border, he knew he and his wife would land in Michigan to be close to his wife's family. But he had not yet decided on law school. When his brother-in-law rekindled that interest, Patterson took the LSAT in Mexico, paying the additional expense. “The final examination prior to Wayne Law's application deadline--as luck would have it, I made the cut!” says Patterson, who is currently using a Veterans Administration program to pay for law school.

His path to the study of law was an indirect one.

“I had a lawyer play an important role in my early life helping my mom with child support cases against my biological father,” he says. “While I don’t think I want to practice family law, his empathy and willingness to help my mother never left my thoughts. Shout out to retired Judge Billy Bell back in north Alabama.”

Patterson is doing a remote externship with the National Labor Relations Board, conducting research for field attorneys and field examiners, and occasionally sitting in on affidavits or hearings.

“Labor law is quite interesting,” he says. “And the NLRB, being a neutral party, performs some interesting investigative lawyering to determine whether or not a violation of the National Labor Relations Act has occurred. I’m really enjoying my time there and my supervising attorney makes sure I am gainfully employed and have plenty of learning opportunities.”

Earlier in the summer, Patterson did a remote externship for Judge Michael Servitto at the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit. Patterson’s work consisted of legal research and writing, and he completed his externship by writing an opinion for Judge Servitto.

“While some elements were lost to COVID—no in-person appearances, no trials—other parts of the experience wouldn’t have been the same if not for Zoom,” Patterson says. “I was able to see Zoom come into the legal realm. I was able to see the attorneys and the judge adjust to the new reality. For many motion hearings and things of that nature, it worked quite well. “But what I value most was the opportunity to have conversations with the judge between cases. A real-time understanding of how a comment was taken or why a ruling went one way, or another was priceless.”

Patterson is still mulling which practice area of law will be his eventual calling. “My goal is to narrow things down over the coming weeks so I can register for winter courses that align with whichever practice area I choose,” he says. “My military experience would really lend itself to work in the areas of e-discovery and data analytics if anyone has a lead on that kind work for the spring or summer. And, having duked it out with the Department of Veterans Affairs myself, some work in veterans’ disability law would be rewarding. Most recently I’ve been looking at estate planning.

“My career goals are still not in focus,” he adds. “I want to work with an organization that has a great culture. I would also love to work with an organization that understands and values the experience I gained from 20 years in the Air Force—the life experiences and hands-on work that most young attorneys don’t yet possess.”

Patterson, who is fluent in Farsi, has been hunkered down at his home during the pandemic, with his wife Sepideh "Sofia" Bahrami, and sons Gabriel and Alexander.

“I’m not sure how much money we’ve spent on Amazon, Walmart, Meijer, during all of this—yes I am, but I refuse to admit it,” he says with a smile. “Delivery right to the door. We also have my 77-year-old mother-in-law with us, and we take extra measures to make sure we’re safe. Because of that, I also have my 5-year-old in kindergarten and my 10-year-old in fifth grade...virtually. Managing their education is another thing I must balance. There’s a whole lot of learning going on inside these four walls at the moment. Add my own classes into the mix and it’s a free-for-all. The Internet bandwidth can suffer.

“And there’s nothing like my youngest popping into my office while I’m in the middle of something,” he adds. “I’ve tried to have a conversation about boundaries with him, but he just laughs and bounces away—the joys of being 5. We try to stay sane by exercising a bit and laughing at ourselves and the situation as often as possible.”

As a transplant to the Great Lakes State, Patterson has enjoyed exploring Michigan.

“We’ve had opportunity to go up north a few times,” he says. “While I’m not yet sold on the winter here, we’re adjusting just fine!”

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