Brian Rohal: How a ‘Serial Career-Changer’ Found His Happy Place

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By Debra Bruno
May 22, 2018

Brian RohalHe’s called himself a serial career-changer, but it finally seems as if D.C. lawyer Brian Rohal has found a place to settle.

But to understand how Rohal, 44, got to where he is today, it’s important to look back at his career path. Or paths.

It’s true that Rohal did start out on the legal straight and narrow. A graduate of Notre Dame University with a degree in economics and government, he went straight to law school at Duke, where, besides his law degree, he picked up a simultaneous master’s degree in international and comparative law. He did well and found himself getting caught up in the mindset that corporate law was the goal.

He was hired by Arent Fox LLP, then moved over to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. He spent several years doing international trade law for Gibson, a firm that is known for its global trade practices. “It was a great place to do that work,” Rohal says, with great co-workers. “Probably the smartest coworkers I’ve had in my life. But it wasn’t for me — it wasn’t my personality.”

He adds, “What I was doing was helping companies lower their tax burden. I didn’t wake up enthusiastic for the day because of that. I enjoyed the people, but I didn’t feel driven by the work itself.”

There was also a sense in corporate law firm culture that he needed to be very serious at all times. “There was little room to relax and be my goofy self.” So, once he paid off his law school loans, he quit.

Thanks to a supportive wife, he spent some time looking at options, and decided he wanted to teach in D.C. Public Schools, which meant getting yet another degree, a master’s in secondary education, at The George Washington University. He started as a history teacher at Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School in the Petworth area of D.C. At that time (around 2006), he says, the school was “a very different place than it is now.” He lasted a year and started looking for something else.

That turned out to be the law-themed Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Anacostia. For six and a half years, he taught social studies, government, and introduction to law; served as a part-time legal advisor to the school; and created his own law course, a model that has been picked up by other organizations around the country. He improved the passing rate of students taking the AP exam to the point where Thurgood students accounted for one-third of all black D.C. students passing the AP U.S. history exam.

It was a great place and he loved his students, he says, but his restlessness eventually set in. “I wanted to change before I became that teacher who recites the same thing every year,” he says.

Rohal started thinking about his next steps. When he served as an advisor to many of his students and former students, he started noticing patterns. It was hard for them to concentrate on James K. Polk or Jacksonian democracy when their own lives at home might be chaotic, with worries about money, housing, safety, and day-to-day living taking precedence.

That gave him a better sense of ways to help people in stressful situations, he says, and he started volunteering at the D.C. Superior Court’s Family Court Self-Help Center. In the beginning, “I knew nothing about family law,” he says. But he found he really enjoyed the work. While he was prohibited from providing legal advice in that context, he could help people understand the process of family court, including pleadings, motions, and the sorts of paperwork they might need to do.

“Often it was just helping them understand how to file basic things to get in front of the judge to get issues resolved,” he says, “and sometimes it was helping them articulate what they were looking for.”

Next, he discovered the D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project, which provides pro bono legal assistance for victims of domestic violence and children at risk. With the help of a mentor there, he volunteered once a week working on civil protection orders, custody, and divorce cases.

After years of volunteering with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Landlord Tenant Resource Center, Advice & Referral Clinic, Probate Resource Center, and Advocacy & Justice Clinic, Rohal has finally found a place to settle down and call home — the Pro Bono Center. He recently started working for the Pro Bono Center as attorney of the day in eviction defense. This time his focus is housing, something he had seen as an issue with some of his students back when he worked at Thurgood Marshall Academy. In his new position, Rohal represents tenants in the Landlord Tenant Branch in both same-day and extended-day representation.

“I miss the classroom,” Rohal says, “but working with the kinds of clients I have is very much the same sort of reward as working with high school students. It’s a connection with someone who needs help in the moment, and to feel that they have a voice and someone will speak for them.”

There’s a “great need” for volunteers in legal services work. Rohal says that often, new volunteers come in with a deer-in-the-headlights look. Other volunteers remind them that they’re not expected to know all the answers.

It’s important to simply take time with the clients, Rohal says. “The answers will come.”