Class of 2024: After Decades in Law Enforcement, Master of Legal Studies Grad Looks to Continue Working with Tucson Community as Legal Paraprofessional

April 16, 2024
Hamilton Van Woert

Name:  Hamilton Van Woert 
Degree: Master of Legal Studies, Legal Paraprofessional Concentration  
Hometown:  Tucson, Arizona 
Undergrad:  University of Arizona, 1992 

What motivated you to pursue a degree in law, and how has that motivation evolved throughout your time in law school?  

I served 25 years in law enforcement with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.  During the latter half of my career, working in a detective role on complex cases, I developed a fascination with law; seeing how it was applied, and sometimes misapplied, by my law enforcement brethren. I cultivated this fascination, and I was encouraged by people whom I respected and whose opinions I valued, including one Pima County Superior Court judge. So, I entered a course of study to become a paralegal, and I’ve been working as such since my retirement from AZ DPS in 2018. Then, I learned about the Legal Paraprofessional (LP) tier of legal service providers, and I realized that I would be able to fill a niche for a segment of the population for whom legal service was beyond possibility because of proximity or, more often, because of cost.   

Why did you choose University of Arizona Law?  

Tucson is my hometown and has been since I was 18 months old. I feel a certain loyalty to the University of Arizona, having gotten my undergraduate from there. And the law school at the UArizona has a good reputation. It made sense to seek my MLS degree at the UArizona, since Arizona is, for the moment, the only state with the LP designation.   

What area of law are you planning to specialize in, and what influenced this choice?  

Most likely family law, followed by civil law, with criminal law as a distant third. Family law, because I’ve experienced friends who have sought my help with legal issues stemming from divorce and child support scenarios. I’ve also had friends come to me with questions about civil legal issues, such as splitting the cost of repair to a well. I’ve been, of course, very limited in the assistance I could provide in these realms, and that troubled me at the time. I could not offer as much help as was needed.  

As for criminal law, I part company somewhat with my police brethren in that I have always believed that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, even people accused of crimes. These people don’t give up their constitutional rights simply because they are under criminal charges. For low-level misdemeanors, these people aren’t afforded a public defender; the collateral consequences of even a misdemeanor are significant, and they need representation. 

Which courses or professors had the most significant impact on your legal education and why?  

Two professors come to mind: the first is Keith Swisher, who taught my Professional Responsibility class. Professor Swisher is eminently qualified, tremendously knowledgeable, and he has the innate ability to present what could be very dry material in a way that is not only interesting and engaging, but utterly fascinating I learned much from Professor Keith Swisher, some of which transcends the area of legal ethics into other areas of LP practice. I appreciate that he is an advocate and champion for the LP program and its expansion. 

The other is Professor Kristy Clairmont. I reached out to Professor Clairmont before I even enrolled in the MLS program, and she was very forthcoming with information and very encouraging. She is very knowledgeable about family law, and her instruction and support have helped me decide to focus on family law in my practice post-graduation.  Professor Clairmont seems to really care about her students’ success.   

What are your immediate plans post-graduation? 

I am working right now in a small local law firm which focuses primarily on personal injury and civil work.  I’ve approached the attorney in charge about the possibility of opening up the firm to family law work. Beyond that, I’m going to set up my own legal services business, in the hopes of helping an as-yet underserved segment of society.  

How do you hope to make a difference in the legal field or in society through your career? Future career plans?  

Again, there are huge swaths of people who cannot obtain legal services when they need to, because of proximity or, more often, because of cost. Those who try to represent themselves get lost in the quagmire of forms, procedures, and rules that no one without at least a modicum of legal training can hope to understand. These people need help, and I’m hoping to be able to provide some of that help. I’m hoping to help people feel heard and helped and hopeful. 

Looking back on your experience at the college, what would you have done differently or what advice would you give to your younger self? 

I’ve suffered from Impostor Syndrome for many years.  I know, rationally, I’ve accomplished a lot, I’m good at what I do, and I’ve been successful.  But the guy in the cheap seats in the back of my head is constantly criticizing, and he’s afraid that someone will discover that I’ve been a fraud all my life. It’s totally irrational, but it is real, and it can be paralyzing.  I’d advise my younger self to remember that the dude in the cheap seats is LYING, and that’s all he ever does!  I’d say, start sooner and believe in yourself.  You’ve got this!   

What will you miss most about University of Arizona Law and/or Tucson? 

I’ve lived in Tucson nearly all my life, and I have no plans to leave at this point. I’ve made some friends while at the University, and I’ll miss the banter and camaraderie. But as for the University of Arizona itself, it’s always been kind of a fixture in my life, and my son will be attending in the near future. So, I’m not going anywhere for a while! 

What was your favorite school experience or extracurricular activity, and why?  

Probably my favorite school experience to date has been a visit and observation at the Pima County Superior Court in my Family Law Default Clinic class. We met many of the judges and commissioners on the family law bench, and we observed a hearing in which a Legal Paraprofessional was representing the Petitioner. It was a fascinating experience, and extremely valuable.    

What are you most proud of while at Arizona Law?   

I’m proud to be a part of the group which is pioneering the Legal Paraprofessional tier of practitioners in Arizona.  The onus is on us to make the program a success, and to be a model for other states to follow suit.  At the risk of sounding self-serving, I’m also proud that I’ve thus far managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA through three semesters of the MLS program.  I’ve never done that before!  

Message for your fellow Class of 2024:   

Control your destiny…or someone else will!