“In my mind, there are two types of law students — those who like trial practice and moot court and those who prefer research, writing and journal work,” said Spencer N. Gheen, a member of the Class of 2010. “I am a more introverted person and am drawn to academic work. I feel like I found my niche in legal scholarship.”
No doubt. In addition to serving as the 2009–10 editor in chief of Willamette Law Review, Gheen is managing articles editor of the Willamette Journal of International Law and Dispute Resolution.
Gheen’s interest in research and writing most likely played a role in his choice of sociology as a major. “I was pretty lost when I went to college, so I experimented with a variety of classes,” said Gheen, who settled into the sociology department at Gonzaga University toward the end of his sophomore year. “Sociology opens you up to your own biases and prejudices. It helped me challenge the assumptions I had about people’s social positions, including my own.
“Now that I’ve been to law school, I think sociology was extremely useful in teaching me to examine fact patterns,” he said. “Sociology taught me to look at issues more deeply and to be cautious about drawing quick conclusions.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2004, the Portland, Ore., native left the Northwest for Chicago, where he enrolled in a master’s program in social work at Loyola University. Concurrently, he began interning at a local psychiatric hospital. “I worked with dual-diagnosis inpatients, those with chemical dependencies and mental illness,” he said.
Within a few months, he became disillusioned with life as a social worker. “I had to face the reality that clinical social work offers a short-term, revolving-door treatment of symptoms, rather than a cure for the root problems people face, such as poverty and a lack of educational opportunities,” said Gheen, who also discovered that he enjoys the challenge of tackling large policy issues.
A few months into his master’s program, Gheen put school on hold and became a field manager for a political canvassing organization in Chicago. In early 2005, he signed on to work as an English teacher for a private school in Pyeongchon, South Korea, where his students ranged in age from 5 to 14. When he returned seven months later, he became a mental health specialist in an inpatient treatment center in Washington. The experience solidified his desire to work on broad policy issues and to study law.
The son of a Willamette law alumnus, Evan Pennock Gheen III JD’75, Gheen said his father has supported him in all his professional choices, but was pleased when he decided to enroll in Willamette University College of Law in the fall of 2007.
Gheen admitted that he had no real concept of what law school would be like other than that it would change him in some way. “As a prospective student, you hear a lot about being taught to ‘think like a lawyer,’” he explained. “I was nervous about that. But now that I’m here, I love it. I’ve tested myself academically and grown more confident and mature.”
In addition to heading Willamette Law Review and retaining his place among the top students in his law class, the introspective scholar has challenged himself in other important ways. During the summer of 2008, he traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to study and work as a research assistant at the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law. The following year, he worked as a law clerk in the Appellate Division of the Oregon Department of Justice.
Still unsure what career path he might follow, Gheen believes it will involve legal scholarship. “I see myself as more of an academic than a conventional lawyer,” he said. “As for next steps, I’ve accepted a clerkship with Judge Timothy J. Sercombe of the Oregon Court of Appeals, which I’ll start after graduation. Beyond that, I can’t say what my plans are. I hope that if I stay openminded, then I’ll find something that captures my interest.”