Former JAG finds new advocacy role
Jennifer Towell ’00 had no idea that the advocacy skills she developed as a lawyer would eventually be transferred to another cause close to heart.
Towell serves on the 2013 board of trustees for the United Disability Services, an organization that grabbed her interest after the birth of her second son, Joey, who has Down syndrome, and as the legal advisor on the board of trustees for Stand Up For Downs.
“I was thrilled to join it because I knew they just have an incredible organization here for all individuals with disabilities of all ages,” she said. “Stand Up For Downs is also an outstanding organization because our focus is specifically Down syndrome.”
Upon graduating from the Moritz College of Law, Towell was confident that she would be leaving with the skills necessary for a successful future, but she was focused on different goals at the time.
“I knew that I wanted to travel and to leave Ohio, and I knew I wanted to be in a courtroom,” Towell said. “Just to have those experiences while I was young and single.”
Her answer was to join the U.S. Navy in the criminal defense office, working as Judge Advocate General.
The position required a number of training steps to prepare for her role. Besides passing the bar examination, there was Officer Indoctrination School that included eight weeks of learning how to be an officer as well as the history of the Navy and six weeks of JAG School, learning how to represent clients in military court and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Towell also had the experience of “Lawyer at Sea,” which was spending time on an active-duty naval base to gain a better understanding of her future clients’ duties.
Her work for the Navy consisted of a variety of duties, from defending sailors and Marines against criminal charges to representing officers in front of administrative hearing boards.
Towell described the job as active, especially the complexity involved when clients who had signed confessions wanted to change their mind. The challenge was trying to prove they were coerced into signing it.
“That was always a very difficult case to try to overcome and be able to represent your client zealously and to the extent that they felt well represented,” she said. “It was really hard.”
Towell credits many of her skills to her moot court experience at the Moritz College of Law, stating that the practical experience was extremely useful during her time with the Navy.
Besides working for Applied Discovery, a division of Lexis-Nexis, she also had a solo practice in Akron, Ohio for a year. Towell described it as being a transition period in her life, as she was looking to get away from working for a big law firm and considering starting a family. But she had no idea just how difficult balancing a career and motherhood could be.
“It takes everything you have,” she said.
The challenge was making both aspects of her life run as smoothly as possible. When Joey turned 1, however, Towell made the decision to step away from her career to focus on the needs of her family.
“For me, it came to a point where I knew I had to take a few years off,” Towell said. “But before that, I did work while raising both kids, and it’s just all about being organized, not feeling guilty, finding a really good support system, finding good caregivers and people on your team that help make it possible.”
Besides serving on the board for United Disability Services, Towell also has continued to strengthen her communication skills through her online Down syndrome awareness blog, titled Cowgirl Up!
“Once we found out we were having a child who has Down syndrome, I did so much research,” Towell said. “I was surprised of how little my friends and family and even I knew about it, so I’ve become really, really involved in advocacy and disability rights. That’s kind of how the blog started. I wanted to help show the world that having a child with Down syndrome is not a death sentence, and it’s not as devastating as some might initially think.”
Her posts often cover everyday life situations, from an experience with a therapist to an encounter with a stranger. Subjects like issues at school, a challenge the family faces or an accomplishment that Joey’s achieved have also been discussed.
One topic elicited the most responses Towell has ever seen on her blog.
When the Today Show aired a segment involving an expecting couple receiving the news on-air that their child did not have Down syndrome, Towell was shocked by the way the situation was handled. The response of the parents-to-be, as well as host Matt Lauer’s referring to the negative test result as “good news,” motivated her to write about her strong feelings toward the episode.
The blog post went viral, drawing in more than 10,000 visits.
“Everyone kept reading it, and I received some really harsh comments in response to the post,” Towell said. “But that’s OK; everyone has a right to their opinion. And I was thrilled that the ethics of prenatal testing got so much coverage.”