From Tee to Trial: A Golfer’s Journey to Becoming a Lawyer and Servant Leader in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.

mpu   |   August 31, 2023

During the 2023 +More Perfect Union Fellowship Retreat in Missoula, Montana, each Fellow and Staff Member had an opportunity to stand up in front of the 30+ attendees and share an origin story. How did I end up here? We were each given three minutes and encouraged to lean into vulnerability when doing so.

For me, the story I told began around 2nd grade when my parents’ divorce separated my family. Like most of us, many of the themes that have shown up in my life can be tied back to my childhood and, in particular, the divorce of my family. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that my family has provided significant support to me through the years, and in that way, I am deeply privileged. But unfortunately, our full family unit never pulled together again after it. Still today, the conflict from those years hangs in the air when we gather for a birthday celebration, a graduation, or a wedding.

From the ages of 14 to 23, I worked my way up at a private country club on the east side of Louisville, Kentucky — a close-knit, wealthy, and conservative community located not far from the homes I grew up in. There, I became addicted to playing and teaching the game of golf — a game steeped in history and tradition but also uncovered sciences and advancing technologies. It was just a game to many, but it provided a vast playground and a few father-type figures for an immature teenager from a divided home seeking an escape from a world that seemed to reject even a privileged white male due to his small physical stature and bright orange hair.

With my parents busy out in the world providing for my four siblings and me, the public golf courses and golf driving ranges in Louisville were effectively my surrogate parents. Where else can a child be dropped off to entertain himself for a full day, for days and weeks and summers on end?

A few years out of college, I set out into the world to follow my dream of becoming a renowned golf-teaching instructor. This was the first time in my life that I set my insecurities aside and really went for it in the direction of my dreams. But, unfortunately, while the financial markets crashed and burned in 2008, so did my new golf-teaching business in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thankfully, from those ashes came my own rebirth.

I had a lot of time on my hands in Atlanta to watch the 2008 presidential campaigns. Until that point, I had only sparingly paid attention to politics. I spent countless hours reading, watching, and following a presidential candidate identified with a different political ideology than the one of my youth’s surroundings. Presidential candidate Barack Obama inspired me to dedicate my life in service to others — believe it or not. It was the first call to service I heard during my 24 years on Earth.

But President Obama was just one attorney out of two that inspired me to set out for a legal education. The initial kick to become a lawyer came from a former public interest lawyer turned golf-putting guru, Geoff Mangum. Geoff studied golf putting, including all of the relevant sciences, for many years and then wrote the best book on golf putting ever — an epic story, given that golf has been played for many centuries.

Fortunately, I knew enough to understand that these two lawyers were operating on a different level than me — and I wanted what they had.

During law school, I received the education I had set out for. I came away equipped with distinguished problem-solving as well as oral and written communication skills, thanks to the brilliant faculty and staff at Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law — the final stop on my purely public journey in education. I could not be more thankful for all the teachers through the years.

Greater Boston Brickyard Leader Ben Lyon (left) and Washington, D.C. Brickyard Leader Ryan Smither at the 2023 MPU Fellowship.

So, “How did I end up at +MPU?”

Early in my journey through law school, I clicked on an Apple News link and began following the work of Jake Harriman and his not-for-profit organization, Nuru International. I followed Jake and his organization over the internet for over a decade! For those who do not know, Jake is the Founder of +MPU, and we met for the first time in Missoula, Montana, during our fellowship retreat earlier this summer.

Since law school, I have built a body of work in the civil-justice arena, which has made impacts on the local, state, and — one could argue — national levels.

As a lawyer heling low- and middle-income Americans with family and housing law problems, I have listened to thousands of intimate stories. Not many people get such a unique view into the lives of fellow Americans — an opportunity to sit down and listen to the whole story, beginning to end. Finances. Relationships. Family supports. Childhoods. Mental health. Violence. Physical health. Disability. Housing. Crime. Government services. Anything you can think of that makes up a part of a human’s story. It is all relevant to the work of a family and housing lawyer.

It is through this lens that I approach the divide in our country, and within these stories are many of the problems facing America. I am committed to healing the divide in American democracy on behalf of these friends of mine.

The nature of this work is that nearly all of these stories will likely remain unpublished. The recognition received from this work is felt in silence — buried in the confidential stories of my individual clients and their aims. Meanwhile, the toll taken on my health through the years is well documented. This work of a public interest lawyer — particularly in family law — is not easy, and there is scientific support for this fact. Surrounded by trauma, this work alters the brain.

But I am not finished fighting.

Of course, not every problem faced by fellow Americans can be resolved on the other side of this divide in our democracy — life is hard, bad things will continue to happen — but I am confident that real solutions are possible on the other side of the divide. Through my work, I have had the great fortune of seeing real change develop when people put their differences aside and come together to solve complex problems.

These moments when people come together to change laws and practices and policies are the moments that make the hair on your arms stand up — the moments that make all of the hard work and sacrifice worth it — the moments that make you stand a little taller and reflect a little longer when the National Anthem is played. I can only imagine that this is how veterans who have honorably served our country must feel when the flag is raised, and the Anthem begins. My hope is that more Americans get the opportunity to feel this same sense of pride.

As a family lawyer for over a decade, my job is to encourage family members to lay down their proverbial swords and pull together to serve the best interests of the family unit. This same principle aligns with the work we are doing here at +More Perfect Union.

I am committed to healing the divide in our American family alongside my +MPU brothers and sisters — work that I have been doing nearly all of my life.