Howe ’19 finds satisfying coda to Marine service in pro bono work for vets
The first time you’re cold-called in class is a rite of passage for law students, but it didn’t faze Sam Howe ’19, who spent eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps before coming to Duke Law.
“It just really could not be less of a big deal,” says Howe. “I have gotten yelled at by much scarier people who had much more authority to do something lasting and bad to me.”
After majoring in public policy as a Duke undergrad, the Boston-area native wasn’t interested in going into consulting or finance, as many of his classmates did. His grandfathers had both served in the military, and Howe thought it could provide an opportunity to do meaningful work. He sought out a recruiter and commissioned as a second lieutenant, trained as a communications officer, and was stationed in San Diego before deploying to Afghanistan.
“I got to work with fantastic people and really just a very different range of people than I had been exposed to either growing up or here as an undergrad,” said Howe. “And I got to have a lot of responsibility.”
When he returned from Afghanistan, Howe served as a Department of Defense liaison briefing members of Congress on Marine Corps priorities. Being in the Marines gave him a taste for leadership and service, but working on Capitol Hill alongside attorneys introduced him to legal and statutory analysis and the doors that would open to him if he had a law degree.
At Duke Law, Howe has been active in the Innocence Project and the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and served as editor-in-chief of Duke Law Journal. While working on behalf of North Carolina prisoners with claims of actual innocence “felt like a continuation of the service aspect of the Marine Corps,” DLJ’s non-hierarchical organization demanded a very different approach to leadership, he said.
“You have to figure out how to identify what makes sense and really persuade people that this is the right way to go. And sometimes, they would persuade me that they had a better approach. And it's all in the context of getting to work on this scholarship that we feel like can push the law in one direction.”
It was serving as the co-director of the Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) during his second year that gave Howe the chance to make an impact for people with whom he shared the experience of military service. VAP, a student-led pro bono organization, works with Legal Aid of North Carolina to help veterans in Durham obtain health and disability benefits and address other legal needs. Often, clients have injuries or trauma sustained during their military service and are struggling to navigate the federal bureaucracy.
“Hearing their stories and seeing the circumstances they're in, I can connect them to the people with whom I had the opportunity to serve,” Howe says. “These are guys who were serving their country, they're trying to do the right thing, and now they're not being taken care of in the way that they should be.”
With VAP, Howe felt he was making a difference, as he had in the Marines.
“That was something that I found a lot of satisfaction in, whether it was working at the individual level or trying to coordinate other students and match up the need that we know exists with volunteers.”
Howe will soon move back to Washington with his wife, Casey Freeman Howe T’08, and their toddler son, Theodore, where he will join Covington & Burling as an associate. He will eventually take a hiatus from practice to serve in a clerkship he has secured with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. After seven years in two different “tours” of Durham, Duke will maintain a special place in Howe’s life, and his family’s, he said.
“I feel just extremely lucky that all of us have this connection to Duke going forward,” he said. “We joke that we are a four-Duke degree family: I'll have two, my wife has one, and our son was born at Duke Hospital. We'll carry that forever.”