Graduate Overcomes Blindness to Earn Law Degree

Challenges don’t hinder graduate from seeing his path to the legal profession.

The standing ovation Earl Oaks got from his classmates as he walked unassisted across the stage at graduation was a testament to the man’s determination and resolve.

On May 10, the 27-year-old earned his law degree from the Texas Tech University School of Law and participated in the graduation ceremonies at the United Spirit Arena. The triumph of completing his degree is even more momentous because he is totally blind.

With graduation behind him, Oaks is looking forward to his next challenge – taking the Texas Bar Examination in July. In the meantime, he will study and wait, and expect offers before he decides his future course. Most certainly, that future includes criminal defense, as Oaks explains, "Criminal law is my first love."

During law school, Oaks was a member of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and served as president in 2007. He also was a member of the National Black Law Students Association from 2006 through 2008.

As a senior law student, he participated in the law school clinics, assisting Lubbock city attorneys with the prosecution and trial of criminal cases in the City of Lubbock Municipal Court. He even won a criminal jury trial in Municipal Court as a Criminal Prosecution Clinic student.

"Many long-time practicing attorneys have never won a jury trial," said law school Dean Walter Huffman, of Oaks’ victory. "Plus, because of his demonstrated skill in the courtroom, he already has been offered a position as a Public Defense Attorney for the State of New Mexico."

But the young lawyer also knows what it is to lose. Because of a congenital condition, he was completely blind by the age of 5. While other kindergarteners in Willis, Texas were learning their ABCs, Oaks was learning to read in Braille, which took about six months. In the six months following, he learned to write in Braille. As he grew up, fortunately so did adaptive technology.

After starting his undergraduate work at Ohio State University, Oaks returned to Texas and did most of his undergraduate work at Texas Tech, earning in just three and a half years his bachelor’s degree in sociology with an emphasis in criminology in 2003.

Assistant Dean Amy Jarmon, director of the law school’s Academic Success Program, was a constant help to Oaks. He also received guidance through Jarmon’s office by blind Texas Tech alum Dax Cowart, who now lives in California.

"Texas Tech Law functions so as to train and produce people who care about each other and to make that kind of care a reality," law professor Dan Benson said.

Oaks named Texas Tech law professor Cal Lewis as one he considered a mentor.

"He helped so much, much more than just law-related or school-related challenges," Oaks said. "Cal was more like a father figure – that kind of help."

His professors were always there to assist, and in turn, he said, the professors developed great respect for him, as well as did other students. He feels he has set an example for people in general, having the drive and determination to accomplish his dreams and goals.

In the Lubbock community, Oaks served as a Student Mentor at Parkway Elementary School, teaching, encouraging and counseling underprivileged students.

"Not only did I help them with homework, but also with problems at home," he said. "I tried to instill in them that college is important, and whatever dream you have to follow it wherever it takes you. Never give up, never say never, and find ways to overcome obstacles. That is my message to the kids out there."

CONTACT: Casey Carson, director of alumni relations, Texas Tech University School of Law, (806) 742-3990, ext. 315 or casey.carson@ttu.edu