Law partners: Judge, college paving way for a new generation of lawyers

Published: Jan. 20, 2022 at 5:54 PM CST
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DE PERE, Wis. (WBAY) - A local college is putting itself on the map as a starting point for up-and-coming lawyers, thanks in part to energetic faculty and a very passionate Brown County judge.

St. Norbert College in De Pere is a liberal arts school, well known for business and education, but it’s now starting to become known for pre-law as well.

“When I was, I don’t know, maybe fourth grade, I would come home every day and watch Judge Judy,” recalls Elizabeth Totzke. “And now I look back and I’m like, wow, that was all TV, but it honestly really got me thinking about it.”

Totzke’s childhood dream of becoming a lawyer is one step closer to reality now.

In May, she’ll accomplish that goal when she and her husband, Hunter Van Asten, both graduate from Notre Dame Law School.

“I find it mentally challenging, and I like that aspect of it,” says Van Asten, when asked why he chose to become a lawyer.

The two studied together at St. Norbert College, where they shared the same attitude about their classes and those who taught them -- they were tough, demanding, but exactly what they needed.

“So many of us have gone on and done well in law school, or at least gotten to law school from St. Norbert and been fully equipped to be here, whereas you see some people where I think the first year law school’s like an eye opening experience for them,” says Van Asten.

They credit that success to professor and advisor Charley Jacobs -- and to Marc Hammer.

Hammer is known to to St. Norbert students as an instructor, but to the community, he’s known as Judge Hammer.

“This all happened with St. Norbert requesting an adjunct instructor for one course for one semester and that was going to be the end, and it just didn’t turn out that way,” explains Hammer.

What started as a temporary idea in 1995 has blossomed into an unexpected second career for Hammer.

“I will say, what we do here, I think, is different, because we really are encouraging of giving them the entire experience, not just the classroom experience and quite frankly, that’s different,” says Hammer.

It truly is very different and and very rare.

“Because we go to tournaments every year for mock trial, and most of the coaches are faculty like I am, or they’ll often find a local attorney to help, but judges? No way,” says Charley Jacobs, pre-law advisor and political science professor at St. Norbert College.

Having a judge so involved in education has become a big draw for a growing number of students who are craving that unique perspective from a sitting judge who practices what he teaches.

Jacobs says around 15 students every year are now graduating St. Norbert and heading to law school.

“He’s a tough professor. I mean, he went to law school himself, so he really has that mindset that’s very much different than sort of other undergraduate professors,” says Totzke.

She and Van Asten say they didn’t fully grasp how much Hammer’s classes prepared them for law school until they got there and watched others struggle with things they realized they already knew.

“From day one, you kind of have this different expectation of what he’s going to tell you versus a professor because it feels like it has a realistic flavor to it,” says Van Asten.

The judge embraces it all, from inviting students into his courtroom to see the law in action to helping them decide what law school to attend.

“I do not feel like an adjunct. I do not feel like a part-time instructor. I feel like a member of that community,” says Hammer. “Because you feel that way, it is enjoyable.”

It’s also created lifelong and unique friendships.

“It was just kind of funny now seeing and thinking about how accomplished he is and what he’s done for us, but also just thinking of what a goofball he is at the end of the day,” says Van Asten, laughing. “It’s like I can hear his voice. He’s had such a voice that we would impersonate all the time.”

So, Van Asten gave us his best Judge Hammer impersonation.

“Kids, kids, OK, you’re going to be fine. You know what, you’re going to learn it, kids,” recites Van Asten. “Now give me your thoughts. What are your thoughts?”

We showed Judge Hammer a video clip of Van Asten’s impersonation.

Turns out, he nailed it.

Hammer couldn’t stop laughing as he watched it, saying, “Oh, that is so true!”

Then he offered a little explanation as to why he calls all his students ‘kids.’

“The reason why I do this is I can’t remember anyone’s name! And when I can’t remember, it’s terrible, and they know. They’re too bright not to know it, so I want to have some class interaction,” says Hammer, still laughing. “Hey, blue shirt! What do you think blue shirt?”

But that resonates with students, even after they’ve left campus.

“It’s nice to have people that were invested in us being successful who are also just who were brilliant in their own right, but also such kind people and cared so much for working with students,” says Van Asten. “And I think (that) was really the difference for us.”

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