Neena Sterling: Cooley gives extra push, fight, and motivation to excel in law school
Neena Sterling (Gray Class, 2022) knew she wanted to be a lawyer since she was a young girl. When she graduated from college she was on track, but ended up hitting some bumps and taking time off to work for a year. In 2016, she had a daughter, and her dream of law school was put on the back burner.
It was in 2018 when Sterling decided she needed to at least give law school a try, but things didn’t fall into place until 2020.
“When I started applying to law schools, things weren’t as seamless as I had hoped. I was looking for a law school that would work around people like me, a single mom. I needed flexibility. And most law schools didn't offer many options.”
Then Sterling discovered Cooley Law School. Not only did she like that Cooley offered many flexible schedule options, she especially liked how committed the Cooley people were to students. That culture gave Sterling the confidence to take her chance on law school and a legal career. She applied, got accepted, then quickly packed up her things and moved from Brooklyn to Tampa with her three-year-old, Janiyah, to start her new journey.
“We just packed up our lives, not knowing what to expect or what was next. I just knew though that I had to give this a shot. I had faith that it was all going to work out.”
She arrived in Tampa just three days before law school started, and despite being a bit scared, she immediately felt a calming effect with the people at Cooley.
“I remember my first day at orientation. I was so nervous and didn't know what to expect, but it somehow was comforting. I felt a sigh of relief when I came through the doors. I felt like I belonged here. I saw so many people who looked like me. There were moms, there were many parents, and they were doing it part-time. There were people coming to law school after a third or fourth career, after figuring out that they now wanted to start law school. I knew right then that I wasn't going to be that oddball standing out.”
Not only did she feel warmth toward her fellow students, she had a connection with the Cooley faculty and staff.
“I remember telling my story about being a single mom and was quickly introduced to another student by a professor, I think a 3L, who was doing law school and excelling. I felt even more comforted in my decision. So many people think you shouldn't be successful at a young age, especially when you have a child; like your life is kind of over. But it wasn't.
“Coming to Cooley I realized that there are so many success stories, and it just gave me that extra push. It gave me that extra fight. It gave me that extra motivation to keep going forward that I know I would never have found at another school.”
JOURNEY TO ESQUIRE
Sterling’s experience in law school wasn’t easy, but it was profoundly energizing and impactful. She especially found a mentor in Professor Joseline Hardrick right from day one.
“I met Professor Hardrick on my first day of law school. She also was my constitutional law professor. I was struggling in that class, and she helped me understand the readings and the law. She became a mentor for me throughout law school. Then as a 3L, I applied to Professor Hardrick’s rigorous Journey to Esquire program and was accepted!
The program itself held invaluable personal lessons and support for Sterling.
“I had a lot of self-doubt. Every time that I overcame a struggle, I still believed that something wasn’t right; that at any moment the rug would be pulled out from under my feet, and I would fail.”
In those times, Sterling would reach out to her mentors, or just look at her daughter and find her motivation. She would never give up or stop. She found the courage to push ahead and succeed. Sterling also made sure to connect with every professor for each class. She was surrounded by the support she needed to keep her moving forward, even when she was studying for the ultimate test, the bar exam.
Self-doubt crept into her mindset again during Bar Prep, but her support system came through again.
BELIEVE TO ACHIEVE
“I remember the day I took the bar exam; I literally could hear my professors’ voices in my ears as I was going through the exam. That gave me the motivation I needed to keep going, keep writing, and keep doing what I had to do. That feeling of pride and relief when I passed the bar on my first try is something I will never forget.”
It also dovetailed into her job offer from the State Attorney's Office in Hillsboro County, the very place she had done her externship with Cooley Law School.
“Once I passed the bar exam, I got sworn in the very next day – 24 hours later I became an attorney and an assistant state attorney!”
Sterling worked at the state attorney's office for the next year and gained experience in the criminal justice arena. Then she received an offer and accepted a position with a Tampa civil litigation firm, Cole Scott and Kissane. She is enjoying everything about her new position now and is passionate about protecting the rights of her clients. Things are going great for her and she is excited about her future.
She sees herself trying many areas of the law, never holding herself back, which includes the possibility of aspiring to a childhood dream job.
“As a child, my goal was always to be a judge. I would tell my grandmother, as we would watch judge shows on TV, that I was going to be in that position one day. I'm going to be a judge. I feel like I still owe it to myself to accomplish that goal. Prove it to myself and my grandmother, despite having passed, to go for it.
“I am enjoying what I am doing now, but also studying hard for the New York bar exam. I want to become licensed in multiple states, to create more opportunities around the nation and see where I can go. For me, as a lawyer, the sky's the limit on what I can do.”
In her free time, Sterling loves to spend time playing with her daughter, along with cooking, baking, and traveling. The two especially like to travel to Costa Rica to visit family, different places, and learning about new cultures.
STERLING ON THE COOLEY CULTURE
“Cooley was one of the greatest experiences I had in my law school journey. Even if I could go to any other school or do it all over again, I would choose Cooley. The help, the support, the resources that you receive is not something you will find anywhere else. You learn from professors who have practiced, who truly care about their students. Plus, the diversity and environment are amazing and welcoming. Learning with such a spectrum of people was motivating.”