When Vanderbilt Law student Matthew Downer spent part of his 1L summer in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy, he was actually serving in his third federal government position in Washington, D.C. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Downer interned in the White House Office of Communications in 2005 and worked as a project analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense in 2006. The experience researching and writing about the stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan helped Downer confirm his decision to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduation.
During his four years as a ground intelligence officer in the Marines, Downer deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province for seven months with First Reconnaissance Battalion. While there, he commanded the combat operations center, coordinating MEDEVACS, armed aerial drones, direct air support, and resupplies, in addition to commanding or joining various vehicle or foot patrols. Downer and his wife, Amber, found out they were expecting their first child a week after he arrived in Afghanistan. They had met as White House interns and were married the summer between Downer’s college graduation and the start of Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. Amber worked for the Department of Commerce and the White House during his training in Virginia and then as a defense and political consultant when they were stationed at Camp Pendleton, California.
Downer returned from Afghanistan in December 2010, just weeks before the birth of his daughter, Olivia. He had planned to deploy with First Recon again 11 months later, but Olivia’s arrival changed his plans. “Deciding not to extend my contract was really difficult,” Downer said, “but it felt like the right time to focus on creating a more stable life for our family and returning to my original plan of attending law school.”
Downer considered Vanderbilt an obvious choice, because of both its strong academics and his family ties. Downer’s younger brother, Josh, was already a member of the Class of 2013. Both are from Chattanooga, Tennessee, while Downer’s wife Amber has family in Nashville. “Vanderbilt is a fantastic law school and, after so long away, we were excited to be close to our families again,” Downer said. The Thomas W. Beasley ’73 Scholarship filled the gap between Downer’s G.I. Bill benefits and the cost of law school, which clinched his decision to choose Vanderbilt.
Downer believes that his military service—particularly his time in Afghanistan’s dangerous Helmand Province—gave him a healthy perspective on the rigors of law school. “It puts life in perspective,” he said. “You know what it means to work really hard and to endure conditions that are actually harsh. By comparison, a long day in the library is nothing to complain about.” His first law school class—Civil Procedure with Professor Suzanna Sherry—set the tone for his Vanderbilt Law School experience. “She’s brilliant and very demanding in a way that brings out the best in students,” he said. In addition to serving as Executive Editor of Vanderbilt Law Review, Downer has also served as a research assistant to administrative law scholar Lisa Bressman, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and complex litigation and federal courts scholar Brian Fitzpatrick. Downer has published his student note in the Law Review, a seminar paper in a legal journal, New Voices, and was a student contributor to Professor Michael Newton’s edited publication, Terrorism: International Case Law Reporter (Oxford University Press, 2012). He was also a mock trial finalist and serves on the Moot Court Board.
Downer clerked federal judges at both the district court and appellate levels during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 terms. He worked as a summer associate in the Washington office of Kirkland & Ellis in 2013 and joined the firm after his second clerkship with Judge Raymond Kethledge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The Downers celebrated the birth of their second child, Charlie, during Matt’s 2L spring, and he acknowledges that juggling family life and law school responsibilities has been challenging. He credits his wife—“She’s a saint!”—and the friends he’s made in law school—including other military veterans as well as Law Review colleagues—for helping him get the most out of his law school experience. “Vanderbilt has a critical mass of people who didn’t go straight from college to law school—people who served in the military or Teach For America, started businesses, or did something else that broadened their perspective,” he said. “For whatever reason, Vanderbilt attracts people whose priorities extend beyond the classroom. In addition to fostering close friendships, that vibrant community helps us maintain balanced lives.”