No Argument: Former McKendree Debaters Succeed in the Legal Field
“Many thought I would be drugged out, in prison or worst, dead in the streets of East St. Louis with how and where I was raised. Between an alcoholic dad, drug addicted mom and my brothers in and out of jail, there was not much to smile about as a child, but I had a number of saving graces, including God, my family and a strength I didn’t know that I had.”
~ Courtney Logan ’08, excerpt from “Shaped by Fire: My Escape from Poverty’s Pit”
The journey that Courtney Logan ’08 has taken to get to this point in his law career has been riddled with obstacles. Growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., a town known for systemic poverty and violent crime, he had to overcome overwhelming odds to rise above the turbulent early family life that resulted in his placement in foster care before his grandmother was able to take in Courtney and his siblings.
The 2014 McKendree Alumni Rising Star Award recipient, author and litigator, shared his transformative story from his recent autobiography “Shaped by Fire: My Escape from Poverty's Pit” at a Bag Lecture at McKendree in October.
He recalled by day, being consumed by the normal worries of being a black boy living in the hood and by night, the echoes of 9-millimeters and 12-gauge shotguns that rocked him in his sleep. Courtney shared his first-hand account of one of his brother’s murders during a failed drug deal and a police raid of his house that resulted in a gun being pointed in his face in middle school.
He credited his success to the positive choices he has made in his daily life and the mentors he had when he was a child, including his second grade teacher and high school football coach, who believed in him and pointed him in the
“My life has been full of consistent, positive choices, but they’ve also been filled with consistent, positive people.”
In high school, he focused on playing football to keep him off the streets. It was football that eventually led him to McKendree, where his ultimate purpose became clear. He met Rachel (Witcher) Logan ’07 who would become his wife and joined the debate team. He found debate was his passion.
“Debate mixed my foundational knowledge with critical thinking and communication skill sets any lawyer needs to be proficient at his or her craft,” he said. “However, debate enhanced these skills by making me hone them on a weekly basis. This in some ways put me ahead of some of my peers.”
Courtney was an integral member of the three-time national championship debate sweepstakes team. Along with teammate Steve Loftus ’08, he won a national championship in varsity parliamentary debate at the Pi Kappa Delta National Championships and qualified for the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence in 2008.
The communication and philosophy double major was also president of the Deneen Law Society, a Student Government Association senator, and Model United Nations outstanding delegation awards member.
With all his debate success, one might be surprised to learn his most memorable debate moment was not about winning a national championship. Instead he recalls an act of compassion by his coach.
“Prior to one of my first tournaments, I was en route to McKendree from home the morning of the event when my car stopped on the highway,” he said. “I was able to make it to the nearest weight station, but I knew at that moment my chances of making it to that tournament were probably non-existent.
So, with disappointment in my heart, I picked up the phone to call Coach Joe Blasdel '00 to break the unfortunate news to him. To my surprise, he was not upset. Instead, he said ‘we are on the way to pick you up.’ I am grateful to this day for that act of compassion and understanding.”
After he graduated, Courtney went on to earn his law degree from Saint Louis University School of Law, where he continued his debating success as a member of the 2011 Frederick Douglass Moot Court National Championship winning team. He was also inducted into the Theodore McMillian Inn of Court.
“Debate mixed my foundational knowledge with critical thinking and communication skill sets any lawyer needs to be proficient at his or her craft.”
He started his career as an assistant state’s attorney for St. Clair County, Ill., in the domestic violence division. He is now an associate attorney for Lashly & Baer, P.C. in St. Louis, Mo., where his practice focuses on defending health care providers and health care institutions.
Courtney also serves as an assistant adjunct professor teaching trial advocacy at Saint Louis University School of Law and is a motivational speaker on youth development, leadership, and overcoming obstacles.
On Aug. 24, along with several faculty members, he participated in a panel discussion at Holman Library on recent events in Ferguson, Mo. The discussion focused on the death of Michael Brown, race relations in St. Louis' North County, and the history of race segregation and discrimination.
He spends his spare time mentoring at-risk youth. He is the president of the board of directors of the New Yu Youth Movement in Washington Park, Ill., and is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. He volunteers at several community outreach events, including the Prisoner Re-Entry Summit for Hope and Youth Offender Day.
According to his book, he is on an international mission to save youth by empowering them with his message. There is no argument this is a true testament to the man Courtney has become and the life he leads as a husband, father, motivational speaker, mentor and litigator.
Courtney is not the only former McKendree debater who has drawn on his or her competitive debate experience as a springboard to a successful career in the legal profession. With all the debate programs accomplishments over the past 20 years, several former debaters have gone on to law school and pursued jobs as attorneys.
The McKendree debate program was established at McKendree in 1995. The program has quickly grown into one of the top ten in the nation for parliamentary debate, under the coaching leadership of Dr. Richard Hunsaker (1995–2003) and Joe Blasdel (2003–present). Highlighted by three consecutive first place team finishes in Debate Sweepstakes at the Pi Kappa Delta (PKD) National Championships from 2006-2008, the debate program has won 19 PKD national championships and had 23 teams advance to the final rounds at the National Debate Association Championship Tournament.
The teams’ winning journey has required a significant investment of time - from practices to traveling to tournaments which typically run two to three days. All those hours spent together has fostered a family atmosphere among its members.
“Having a background in debate allowed me to step right into the role of prosecutor and feel comfortable arguing cases in court.”
Four former debaters share how their experience helped prepare them for their legal careers.
Chad Kaffer ’00
J.D., Washington University School of Law
Chad is a partner with Davidson & Kaffer, PLLC in Scottsdale, Ariz. He focuses his practice on business and real estate law. He was a state champion high school debater who came to McKendree on a debate and academic scholarship.
“My experience as a member of the McKendree debate team gave me invaluable experience in critically analyzing issues, thinking on my feet, and framing issues in a persuasive manner. I feel it also helped me to adjust to law school more readily than many of my peers. Law school is taught in a Socratic manner, where the professor uses the class much like a debate cross-examination to make the student examine issues and to learn to defend their positions in an immediate way. That is the essence of a good debater.”
Ryan Anderson ’01
J.D., Washington & Lee University School of Law
Ryan is a senior assistant city attorney for Bellingham, Wash, where he works as the lead prosecutor.
“I have spent countless hours in the courtroom, arguing my position in an effective and respectful manner. Having a background in debate allowed me to step right into the role of prosecutor and feel comfortable arguing cases in court. The positions lawyers defend are dictated largely by our job or our role, not necessarily our personal beliefs. Debate sharpens your ability to argue all sides of all issues. Debate forces you to think outside your narrow world view and argue positions opposite of your own, or consider perspectives opposite of your own and argue for those positions.”
Rebecca “Becky” (Lindstrom) Wohltman ’09
J.D., Saint Louis University School of Law
Becky is an associate with Mathis, Marifian & Richter, Ltd. in Belleville, Ill. She recently joined the firm after nearly three years as an assistant attorney general in the Office of the Missouri Attorney General. Her practice focuses on transactional law.
“Debate gave me the skills to speak confidentially and persuasively about anything, even if I never heard of the subject until the 20 minutes before the debate round and even if I personally disagreed with my assigned side of the topic. It taught me to anticipate the opposition’s arguments and create responsive arguments quickly,” she said. “Most importantly, debate taught me to think critically and logically.”
Jana (Fisher) Brady ’00
J.D., Northern Illinois University School of Law
Jana is a partner with Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen in the Rockford, Ill., office. In her practice, she primarily defends medical treatment providers and employers in the context of civil litigation. In 2014, she was named to the Illinois Super Lawyers Rising Stars list.
“I was never the debate or speech team type. I was a three-sport athlete who never considered being an attorney. No one in my family is an attorney. Only two relatives had graduated from college before me. I joined the debate team after taking an argumentative communications class with Professor Haskins for my minor in communications. I enjoyed the class very much. I quit collegiate volleyball and track and field to join the debate team. I joined because public speaking terrified me. It was a bit thrilling. Everyone on the team was hilarious and quick witted-quality people for sure.
“Speech and debate helped prepare me for a career in the legal field because it taught me how to construct sound and persuasive arguments and to present those arguments in a professional, eloquent, unemotional and non-confrontational way. I never considered myself to be exceptionally smart. I ended up graduating number one in my law school class and I was hired by my firm as a second-year law student. I owe that entirely to my debate team experience at McKendree."