A non-traditional student at 31, COL Matthew Fitzgerald JD’02 has already had two careers, spending 13 years enlisting in the military and four teaching high school students.
He became interested in law during his master’s studies. A client of his part-time job mentioned Willamette and he decided to find out more. With its small class sizes, welcoming environment, setting, and access to private and public service opportunities, it was everything he was looking for in law school.
When 9/11 happened, Fitzgerald thought he would be recalled to the military, although he was not recalled. He instead sought to rejoin the service, enrolling for an initial three-year term in the Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps. Two decades later, he received a competitive promotion to colonel in April 2022.
“I was a little surprised, but delighted to have the opportunity to delay my retirement for a few more years,” he says. “A promotion to the rank of colonel makes you one of our organization’s primary partners, so you work to manage the profession, mentor, train and advise our junior judge advocates.”
Fitzgerald’s role includes planning and shaping the JAG corps, overseeing the legal operations of 25 to 50 attorneys, and advising senior leaders. He currently presides over military courts martial for several installations in the Northwest.
“Pretty much everyone I’ve come in contact with [at Willamette] shaped me and made me a better lawyer,” he says. “They cared about the language of law and analysis, crafting the strongest legal response and becoming a principled legal adviser.
“Regardless of what you practice, you better have a solid legal and ethical foundation, and I got that in Willamette.”
Over the years, he has worked on missions ranging from border security and pandemic response to national security and overseas combat operations. It’s rewarding and fascinating, says Fitzgerald.
He is glad to have seen a culture of change in the military since the 1980s, with the normalization of combat-experienced female leadership and an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. There’s no such thing as a career in the military, he says.
“That innate camaraderie and that brother-and-sister-in-arms thing — I knew I missed that in law firms,” he says. “It’s hard to break away from the Army’s esprit de corps. There is a common spirit of honoring and preserving its legacy and continuing it.”