Military Feature Patrick Tolan: Military Students’ Strong Sense of Integrity Ideal for Legal Career

WMU-Cooley, as a military friendly and designated Yellow Ribbon School, talks to its military students, faculty and graduates about their journey from the military to law school and about their career goals. April’s monthly feature is WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Patrick Tolan. Professor Tolan was a Lieutenant Colonel, Staff Judge Advocate, before he turned his legal career to teaching. 

Military rank and title: Lieutenant Colonel, Retired, Staff Judge Advocate

Career Description: I began my active duty career as a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy in 1980 (I was 17 years old, and turned 18 in basic training). I graduated with a double major in Electrical Engineering and Basic Sciences, but my favorite classes (and professors) were in the law department. I served as a Lieutenant in the Foreign Technology Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Ohio. My job entailed reverse-engineering foreign (predominantly Soviet) weapon systems during the Cold War.

I looked into law school because I always wanted to be a lawyer. When the Air Force offered me the opportunity to attend the University of Michigan Law School through the Funded Legal Education Program (FLEP), a competitive and selective program, I jumped at the chance. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1990, I was assigned as the Chief of Civil Law, then the Chief of Military Justice at Eielson AFB in Alaska. There, I was the principal attorney advising the Wing Commander on environmental and government contract issues before becoming the chief prosecutor (of Officers and Airmen under the UCMJ and as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting civilians who committed crimes on the military installation (Federal property).

After that, I served for three years on the Air Force Trial Team defending the Air Force from contract disputes before the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals. From there I transferred to a teaching position at the Air Force Academy where I taught the Introduction to Law Class, Law for Commanders and Government Contract Law. After the Academy job, I was the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate and principal environmental attorney at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. I completed my LL.M. in Government procurement and environmental law before becoming the Staff Judge Advocate at Hanscom Air Force Base, between Lexington and Concord, Mass. I was the senior legal adviser to the Air Base Wing Commander and principal legal adviser for military justice issues to the 3-star Commander of Electronic Systems Center. I retired in 2005.

What makes law students with a military background so ideal for a legal career: I believe there are many reasons why law students with a military background make tremendous law students and lawyers. First, military members have integrity — they are used to a code of conduct and the highest moral standards. Second, service members are professionals; they have had training that instills characteristics like honesty, loyalty, perseverance, competence, dedication, and diligence. Third, they put the needs of others ahead of their own personal needs. Fourth, they strive for excellence in everything they do. Finally, the military instills discipline, which is perhaps the most important ingredient to success in law school and beyond.


Tell us a little about you:
My career goal is to have a long and distinguished teaching career, educating the next generation of attorneys. I enjoy church activities; hiking, fishing, kayaking, and outdoor activities; weight lifting, sudoku, and family time with my wife Tonya (of 28 years) and my four children.

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