“All my professors helped me see the world in different ways. They’ve helped me understand where I can make a difference.”
– Hannah Hirl ’19
Hometown: Oskaloosa, Iowa
Location: Des Moines, Iowa
Majors: Sociology and Political Science
Campus Organizations: Students Against Human Trafficking
Service Learning Experiences: Conmigo Early Education Center; Catholic Worker House; The Project of Primary Health Care; Iowa Legal Aid; Garden Gate Ranch
Internships: Mahaska County Department of Human Services
Off-Campus Activities: Court-Appointed Special Advocate, Polk County, Iowa, Child Welfare System
Occupation: Law student and law clerk
Hannah Hirl ’19 is a second-year student at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, and works part-time at a Des Moines employment and civil rights law firm.
“In my lifetime, there’s never been a more pertinent time for civil rights and employment law,” she says. “Our firm represents clients in sexual harassment cases, race, disability and gender discrimination cases, as well as some COVID-19-related unemployment cases.”
Hirl is also taking six classes this semester and on the executive board of Drake Law Women and the legal fraternity Delta Theta Phi. She continues as a court-appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system, something she began during her time at Central College.
“My life is crazy,” she says, “But I love it.”
Looking back at Central, she says the college’s best assets are its students and faculty.
“Because of the smaller class size, I was able to get to know my professors on a much more personal level,” she says.
Her favorite class? Status and Inequality in Social Life with Professor of Sociology Jon Witt. “Jon pushed us to critically examine structural inequalities and social injustices in society. I left that class knowing each one of us is capable of making life better for at least one person or one population of people. As long as that was my pursuit, I knew I would be successful (and never bored) in whatever career path I chose.”
She can’t name a single favorite professor. “It’s a four-way tie — Associate Professor of Sociology Dawn Reece; Jon Witt; Associate Professor of Sociology Shawn Wick; and Professor of Political Science Jim Zaffiro,” she says. “All of my professors helped me see the world through different lenses. They’ve helped me understand where I can make a difference.”
Outside the classroom, she says, she learned a lot about what she wanted to do from her Central-sponsored undergraduate research, internship and community learning experiences.
“The classes are great, but you have to get out into the community and meet people. It’s so important to gain experience in a several areas to know what you do and don’t want to do,” she says. “My internship with the Mahaska County Department of Human Services after my sophomore year exposed me to the courtroom. I left an adjudication hearing one day and promptly Google searched, ‘How to Get into Law School,’ and four years later, I’m almost halfway through this step in the journey.”
After her internship at DHS, she completed a research project titled “Children in Need: Examining Barriers to Quality Care in the Iowa Foster Care System,” which she completed with Wick. “We formulated a research proposal, using various sources as evidence, of the importance of the research. We found out about a month later we had received a research grant,” Hirl says.
Hirl credits the project with an interest in policy work, as well as her personal ties with the foster care system through her nieces and nephews, three of whom were adopted in May out of the foster care system.
“I learned foster care is an extremely complex system. My project identified sizable challenges that children and families in foster care face, as well as some gaps in the functioning of the child welfare system. I think my findings have the potential to inform state and federal foster care policy, and as a lawyer, I may have the opportunity to actually construct those policies,” she says.
Through a political science course with Zaffiro, she ended up doing a community service component at Des Moines’ Catholic Worker House.
“That entire experience had such a huge impact on me,” she says. “I had the opportunity to serve meals week after week to people who were going through some difficult times. I got to know each of them on a personal level while playing card games and making conversation following dinner. I’ve always known that my God-given purpose was to help people. I just had to figure out what form that helping would take.
“When I arrived at Central, I thought I wanted to be a teacher,” Hirl recalls. “Then I wanted to be an occupational therapist, then a counselor, then a hospital administrator, then a social worker before I finally landed on lawyer. It’s completely OK to change your mind. If I’d made a decision on my career too early, I wouldn’t be in law school. Now I don’t question this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Waking up each morning and knowing my purpose is what has gotten me through the many long days and late nights of studying for finals and reading for classes and writing memos and briefs. Although it makes so much sense now, I didn’t always know where I belonged. All of my undergraduate classes and service-learning experiences led me to discover that place.”
She has found her double-major in sociology and political science helpful in her legal coursework — and in choosing her career interests. “In my family law class as we are learning about the legal process of divorce, I’m thinking back to Dawn Reece’s family sociology class, where I learned about the structure of the family. When I’m researching police brutality cases in my position at work, I’m thinking of the principles of racial inequality I learned from Jon Witt and Shawn Wick. To have both the sociological and legal perspective is very powerful,” she says.
“As a second-year law student, I’m taking courses in state and local government and in legislation. I think back a lot to what I learned in the political science courses I took during my undergraduate years. Those laid the foundation for how I understand the functions and processes of the government. Understanding statutory law is much easier when you have a deep awareness of how a legislature operates, as well as an appreciation for the role of lobbyists and political thinktanks in researching and informing policy. I’m making connections between my undergraduate and law school classes all the time.”
Initially interested in family law, Hirl now finds herself attracted to employment and civil rights law and to policy work as a way she can help the most people in the biggest way.
“I believe in equality, and an important piece of that is equal access to legal services. It is important to me that I am able to offer some pro bono legal services in my practice,” she says. “At some point in my career, I would like to help write policy and legislation in some capacity. At this point, I’m not sure what that will look like, but I definitely wouldn’t rule out a run for state government someday.”
Her advice to students interested in law? “Network!” she says. “I got a job offer from a lawyer I blindly emailed and went to coffee with.”
Don’t know someone in law to reach out to? You do now!
“Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org,” Hirl says. “I’d be glad to answer any questions I can about the law school admissions process or about law school in general.”
Tell her Central sent you.