Since she was a young girl, Virginia Marsh wanted to be an attorney. But not just any attorney. Virginia was fascinated by the highest, most treasured and most fundamental ideals in American law. She wanted to practice constitutional law.
That’s a dream that’s not easily realized in any circumstance. In Virginia’s case, life happened. She found herself with a family to raise and a business to manage. However, once she became an empty-nester, she decided it was finally time to pursue her lifelong goal.
She was to learn that life had a few more curveballs to throw her way. But Virginia is one of the most determined, strong-willed and relentlessly positive people you could ever hope to meet, and she was able to overcome every challenge that came along. In the conversation that follows, Virginia describes her remarkable journey to realize her childhood dream.
California Southern University: What initially inspired you to pursue your law degree?
Virginia Marsh: It’s part of our family lore that my great, great, great, great, great grandfather’s brother signed the U.S. Constitution. Sure, it’s a distant connection, but the Constitution has always been a part of family discussions, part of our fabric. Members of the family have fought in every war to defend that document. For my part, I have wanted to become a constitutional lawyer since I was young, but the time was never quite right. Then, suddenly it was the right time, and I thought, “alright, let’s do this!”
CalSouthern: What finally made it the right time?
Marsh: My last child had finally left the house. Briefly, I wondered if I was too old to return to school, but then I considered that in three or four years, I was going to be three or four years older regardless of what I did with that time—why not spend that time doing what I’ve always wanted to do?
CalSouthern: You mentioned that, even as a kid, you aspired to be a lawyer. What about the profession appealed to you?
Marsh: The sheer rationality of the law has always appealed to me, as has advocating for people. There are two sides to every story and one side is going to win, so how do you get there? It all boils down to zealous and ethical persuasion and advocacy and that’s something that I have enjoyed about both the study and practice of law.
CalSouthern: How did you learn about CalSouthern?
Marsh: Believe it or not, I heard an ad on the radio. Initially, I was skeptical—a radio ad for an online law school? But I knew that there were reputable online programs in business, psychology and other subjects. Maybe there was something to this school. So I did a lot of research and learned that CalSouthern has a good reputation. I also learned that some of the requirements of online law school were different than in brick-and-mortar schools—not insurmountable, just different.
I live far away from most of the traditional schools in the area, and I knew I was going to have to continue to work through law school, so online was really the only viable option. I decided that CalSouthern was the best choice for me.
CalSouthern: What were your impressions of the online environment?
Marsh: I mentioned that I initially had some skepticism, but I was very pleasantly surprised. The flexibility and convenience were critical for me. With the work schedule I had, the logistical obstacles associated with a traditional school—time spent commuting, parking, sitting in class, all in addition to the reading and coursework—would have made it impossible for me. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Online, it’s more efficient. There’s a great deal of reading, but there’s no wasted time. I’m sure there are trade-offs. For example, online you don’t get the spontaneous interaction that you do in a classroom setting, and it’s not as easy to get to know other students, but for my life circumstances and studying and learning preferences, CalSouthern was the perfect fit.
CalSouthern: Were there any low points or particular challenges you encountered?
Marsh: As a new law student, I struggled a bit. In many ways, the study of law requires you to master a new language and a new way of reasoning. It’s exciting, but daunting at the same time. However, when I was sworn in as an attorney not long ago, one of the judges who spoke at the ceremony mentioned how vividly he recalled the trauma of his first year of law school. And this was a man who had been an attorney for 50 years! So I suppose that no matter who you are or where you go to law school, that first year of law school is a rite of passage.
Another low point was having my mother diagnosed with cancer—the cancer that would ultimately take her life—the week I started school. She moved in with me and I was trying to be a caregiver for her while working and going to law school. It was difficult. I sent Dean Sampong a note, not looking for sympathy, but simply letting her know what was going on. I had turned in a few assignments late and that really bothered me. Dean Sampong was so supportive. She encouraged me to keep it up and assured me that everything would be fine. And from then on, I would get an email from her every now and then. Only a few lines: “Just thinking of you. Very proud! Keep going.”
That meant so much to me, just to know that someone else knew what I was going through. And that the dean would take the time to email me! I was blown away by that personal touch. I expected online to be impersonal, but it was anything but.
CalSouthern: What are some of the other memories you will carry with you from your CalSouthern experience?
Marsh: Most are related to the personal support I received. The deans were fantastic. The mentors I spoke to were very kind and gracious, in addition to being helpful. And I’ll never forget the graduation ceremony. I was not going to go, but changed my mind and am so glad I did. It was so well done. All the mentors I spoke with were very genuine. Everybody was warm and friendly. Nothing was perfunctory or just for show. It was very personal. I’ve told many people about it. Everyone seemed genuinely happy for me, as well as for the rest of the graduates.
CalSouthern: Then there’s the matter of the California Bar Examination. How did you choose to prepare for it?
Marsh: I used a commercial bar prep service that featured personal mentoring. He was good. He didn’t blow smoke. If he thought you were screwing up, he let you know. But on the other hand, when he thought I was prepared, I believed it.
CalSouthern: How was the experience of taking the bar exam?
Marsh: I used a laptop to take the exam, and as luck would have it, the exam software did not work well with my computer’s operating system and the pre-loaded anti-virus software. I would type a sentence and random characters would get redistributed around the document. I couldn’t believe it!
So I took a moment, walked around and got some air. Then I just kept going. By spell-checking every sentence individually, I was able to work around the problem. But it was slow work and very stressful, as you might imagine. That night, I was able to uninstall the anti-virus software, which fixed the problem for the remainder of the exam. The computer was still sluggish, but functional.
Ultimately, it may have helped me out. I figured I wasn’t going to pass, so I didn’t even focus on that anymore. I just tried to accumulate as many points as possible, which is a strategy that my mentor had drilled into my head.
CalSouthern: And the strategy worked! Can you describe the moment when you learned that you had passed?
Marsh: The results were released at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday. Once 5:00 hit, time just stopped! I hadn’t slept the night before and I hadn’t eaten all day. I was sure that I had failed. I even had my Facebook post prepared, letting my friends know that I had done my best and was okay with having failed.
A friend had called—she didn’t want me to have that moment alone. (Actually, I kind of wanted to be alone and have the opportunity to cry it out and then get my game face on before dealing with anyone.) I was on the bar’s website. The computer refreshed and my name popped up on the “passed” list. I screamed involuntarily. Then I started to sob. My friend had no idea what was going on.
I was completely blown away.
CalSouthern: What are your career plans now that you are a licensed attorney?
Marsh: I’ve opened my own law office. I have been doing quite a bit of mediation as I work to build a practice in constitutional law, focusing on religious liberty. So far, it’s going well. We’re seeing more and more cases in this area; it’s a growing field, as well as something that I care deeply about.