Exceeding Expectations

Graduate Patrick Newman defied the odds (again) and earned a lawschool degree a year earlier than anyone expected

Story by Billy Liggett | Photo by Bennett Scarborough

It’s been a challenging summer for Patrick Newman, with all the preparations that go into taking the bar exam and then turning his focus to getting a job, something that’s proven to be a struggle for many fresh-out-of-school lawyers.

It’s a challenge he’s up for, and if experience is any indication, Newman will continue to surprise and succeed.

Born without arms and confined to a wheelchair since he was 2, he was given five years to complete his degree at the Norman A. Wiggins School of Law because of the extra time he needs to complete assignments.

He did it in four.

On May 11, Newman joined 142 of his classmates on the stage at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh to receive his Juris Doctor degree. Joining the stage with his mother — Renne Newman, the woman who was told early in her son’s life that he probably would never be fit for a typical public school — he received a standing ovation from his peers and those in attendance, fulfilling a dream of his that began in middle school when a teacher suggested he should be a lawyer.

“My sixth-grade social studies teacher and math teacher … they said I’d argue with a wall if it talked back to me,” Newman said. “That’s when I started thinking about it. I have an analytical way of thinking, so it started to make sense. And obviously, manual labor was out of the question.”

That sense of humor about his condition has helped Newman in convincing others that his disabilities shouldn’t change the way they treat him.

In addition to never having arms, Newman has had multiple surgeries for scoliosis, and his legs are not weight-bearing. His feet function much like hands in that he can write with them, control his wheelchair and do other things like manage a controller for video games (he’s a big fan of the “Mass Effect” series).

Born in Greenville but raised in Beaufort, Newman excelled in high school and attended St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, where he majored in politics. He was accepted into Campbell Law soon before the school relocated to downtown Raleigh, so Newman was consulted by engineers when it came time to make the new school more wheelchair accessible.

The normal course load for law school is three years, but Campbell administration allowed Newman five.

“It took me four,” Newman said, “but not because of the difficulty of the work … trust me, it’s plenty hard enough for anyone … but because of the amount of time someone in my situation needs for typical assignments. There’s a lot of writing, and voice-activated computers help, but they aren’t perfect.”

Newman relied on note-takers hired by the school. The fact that they were his classmates made a big difference, he said, because they took notes like their grades depended on them, too.

“At this point, you aren’t going to school with many people who didn’t do well academically in high school or college,” he said. “And the vast majority of those in law school got here because they worked hard.”

His fourth year ended with a senior project that included a 50-page report.

“There went my weekends,” Newman said with a laugh. “You can’t coast through these classes, or you’ll fail quickly.”

He said he enjoyed his time at Campbell not only because of what he learned, but because of the friends he made and the way he was treated by his peers and professors.

“It’s a friendly community here,” he said. “Some think of law school as cutthroat, but everyone here had the same goal — a degree. And they were all willing to help me and each other to get it.”

They also didn’t treat him any differently than anybody else, Newman said, something that can be frustrating for those with disabilities.

“Nobody wants to be treated differently, but I realize I need certain accommodations that I can’t do without,” he said. “But it gets frustrating when I’m at a restaurant and the waiter asks somebody else if I want something to drink. Your intelligence has nothing to do with your physical capacity.”

A sharp sense of humor and a hint of sarcasm has helped Newman deal with those awkward occasions. But not having to worry about that so much within the walls of Campbell Law School made his experience a memorable one for all the right reasons.

“They were supportive, but never tried to keep me from being independent,” he said. “I was allowed to take part in the process of making it more accessible, and as much as possible, when classes started, I was just like everybody else. I did the same work and was given the same assignments, and they didn’t treat me as any less capable intellectually. That’s what you want at this level.”

On May 11, Newman shared the same feelings as most of his fellow graduates at commencement.

A little excitement. A little fear of the unknown.

“I’ve been in school since I was 5,” said Newman, now 26. “That’s 21 years. I really don’t know what it’s like to not have the next set of classes to go to or the next assignment to worry about.”

He did have the bar exam to worry about (students took the exam in late July; results were not available before the printing of this magazine). And, as mentioned earlier, there’s the challenge of finding work.

But Newman didn’t seem too worried about the future.

“If I have to, I’ll work for myself,” he said. “That’s one of the wonderful things about being a lawyer. I’d rather work for someone else so I don’t have to deal with the accounting part of it, but we’ll see what happens. I’m willing to work hard … I don’t mind hard work at all. I’d flip burgers if it came to it.

“I just wouldn’t be very good at it.”