PROFILE: Law Grad To Take His Post In Homeland Defense

All Americans remember where they were when the attacks of 9/11 happened. UC Visiting Professor of Law Jim O’Reilly recalls the shock as students emerged from class to hear the news, and he remembers in particular the reaction of student Jim McMahon.

"When 9/11 occurred, we were all shocked, but he wanted to go off and act," O’Reilly says. "He’s very committed to the future progress of the Coast Guard and the safety of the U.S., and like all warriors at heart, he wanted to go off and fight, but it was right for him to stay."

As you might guess, McMahon’s circumstances are different than those of typical law students. He’s a lieutenant commander with 14 years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard paid for him to go to law school and, after he finishes law school by participating in the

UC College of Law’s 170th Hooding Ceremony

on May 17, he’ll head to Washington, D.C., to work in the Office of Maritime and International Law at Coast Guard headquarters.

"He will do more for the Coast Guard as an expert on international maritime law and in safeguarding the ports by writing the standards and procedures for inspection of ships than he ever could just going out there ship to ship," O’Reilly adds.

Actually, that kind of work has been a big part of McMahon’s career experience. He has been assigned to four ships since graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in 1989. He captained the last, the Coast Guard Cutter Thunder Bay, which was an icebreaker based in Rockland, Maine.

"It was great," McMahon says. "It was the one job where you were paid to deliberately run your ship into something and bust it, rather than try to avoid it. When you’re going through the ice it’s very noisy and the entire ship vibrates quite a bit. It wears on your knees and back a bit."

Law enforcement was a part of the mission of each ship on which he served. In Maine, he and his crew often boarded fishing vessels looking for practices that violated fishery laws.

McMahon is a native of Sandusky, Ohio, and the son of a Coast Guard veteran. With Lake Erie in his backyard, the Coast Guard always appealed to him.

Law school was a different story. He didn’t really become interested in the law until taking a military justice course at the end of his undergraduate experience at the Coast Guard Academy. Then he wasn’t sure his academic record would demonstrate that he was serious about law school. So he beefed up his record by earning a Master’s Degree in administrative science from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

That helped open the door to a Coast Guard program that offers to put a few officers each year through law school, in exchange for an additional six-year commitment after graduation.

He chose the UC College of Law because of its small size, reputation for faculty committed to working with students, and its track record in leading the state in bar passage rates.

Earning his Coast Guard salary helped during his three years at the College of Law, but it doesn’t mean the time didn’t have hardships. In addition to adapting to the academic demands, McMahon’s studies were complicated by the fact that at home, he and his wife Michelle have five kids, the youngest arriving right before the start of his law school experience.

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"Actually, law school was more challenging than we’d even thought it would be. It demanded my attention to such an extent that it was a seven-day-a-week commitment," McMahon says. He adds that Coast Guard life, where he could be gone for weeks at a time, had made Michelle used to operating independently. Still, the new arrangement of living in Lebanon, Ohio, and managing the schedules of children Ashley, 16, Tia, 11, Jimmy, 7, Kelsey, 5, and Matthew, 3, only increased his admiration for the contributions his wife was making to his career path.

His most rewarding project during his law school career came in helping O’Reilly research a presentation he made to the American Bar Association on counter-terrorism and defending against future attacks.

McMahon examined the laws of every state to see what provisions they had made for emergency response, civil defense and environmental response. The project was seeking to identify best practices among the states, and make recommendations on these practices for other states to follow. The presentation was so well received that it became a chapter in a multi-volume environmental law series published by Lexis.

"He did outstanding work to find each of the states’ environmental emergency plans," said O’Reilly. He adds: "He’s a very, very soft spoken but very direct leader. It’s obvious in the respect he has from his classmates that he must have been a very effective captain of his ship."

After graduation, McMahon will be taking the Ohio Bar Exam in July before reporting to Washington in September. He anticipates his work will focus on policy issues in fields like port security and marine and environmental law.

"I’m just looking forward to getting back to a real job," McMahon says. "I enjoy working in the Coast Guard. I enjoy working with the people there, so I miss that -- the camaraderie and the esprit de corps of a military organization."

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