James J. Hatton with 2019 participants in the New York City Program on Finance and Law.

James J. Hatton (front row, 3rd from left) with 2019 participants in the New York City Program on Finance and Law.

An officer and a law student

In the Army they call it war gaming. You ask yourself: If I were the enemy, how could I poke holes in this plan? Lawyers know it as constructing an argument.

photo of Hatton in uniform.

James Hatton has found commonalities between law school and military service. A graduate of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at SUNY Brockport, where he majored in biology, Hatton now juggles two challenging lives – as a second-year UB School of Law student, and as a commander in the Army Reserves, directing a 22-person company that prepares soldiers for the rigors of Drill Sergeant training. Plus, there’s his part-time work with a Williamsville firm that provides financial resources for attorneys.

It’s an exercise in extreme time management. With the help of a whiteboard and a desk calendar, he keeps his days scrupulously organized. That’s another lesson from his military training, Hatton says: “You have deadlines and you have to meet those deadlines, and if you don’t, you’re going to get chewed out by the higher command.”

“And it’s not like there are any surprises in law school. They give you a syllabus.”

Hatton grew up in Amherst, in a family with a tradition of military service. He had thought about going into medicine – with one parent being an oral surgeon, and another a physician – but halfway through his undergraduate years he realized that, “as a big-picture thinker,” law was a better fit. And when it was time for law school, he knew he needed to be at UB. “Buffalo is my home,” he says. “I’ve been here my whole life, and I love Western New York more than anything. It’s got everything that I need and more.”

Which is not to say he hasn’t explored his options – as he did this fall semester as part of the New York City Program on Finance & Law. “I really wanted to take a leap of faith, go somewhere else and see if a big city was where I wanted to be,” he says. “The program was wonderful; I couldn’t give it more praise. And New York was definitely different. I loved the history of the city. We would go into Manhattan and see 60-story buildings, and it was surreal in a way.” He and four friends in the program lived for the semester in Brooklyn, complete with an hour-long commute to the classroom.  

The New York City program combines lecture and externship experiences, and for his externship Hatton had an out-of-the-ordinary assignment, working in the bankruptcy clinic of the nonprofit Legal Services NYC, the nation's largest civil legal services provider. There he screened, interviewed and prepared cases for indigent clients who were seeking to file a petition for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. “I was originally skeptical about it, but I had a great time,” Hatton says. “A lot of times these individuals didn’t have someone to go to – some of them had no family at all – and the gratitude that we received was incredible. They would have done anything for us.”

“Sometimes people just need someone to listen to them, and that’s all you can do for a client that day.”

“James had to start the program a few weeks late because of his military obligations,” says Melinda R. Saran, vice dean for social justice initiatives. (He was finishing up four months of active-duty training for the Army Signal Corps, at Fort Gordon near Augusta, Ga.)

“Despite that, he was able to make sure he caught up, completed all his externship hours and did an excellent job with his work,” Saran says. “In the reflections he wrote, he showed tremendous growth in those soft skills that you can’t teach in the classroom: how to talk to clients, how to interview, how to get the information you need, how to redirect a client when they want to tell you a long story. His military service has created a few minor issues, but luckily we’ve always been able to work around them.”

“Generally, they’re very, very flexible with what I need to accomplish,” Hatton says of his Army Reserve superiors. “But being an officer, it’s especially hard to get around certain things. You never really know what’s going to come up.”

His company – Charlie Company – is part of the 1st Battalion of the 390th Training Regiment, headquartered in Amherst. It’s responsible for training soldiers who are heading to Drill Sergeant School. “They learn Army regulations, physical fitness, (Physical Readiness Training) formations, marching,” Hatton says. “They’ve got to know all the things they teach privates in basic training to a T.”

Hatton knows he’ll have some options after graduation; in addition to a private firm, he’s considering the Reserves’ JAG Corps. Meanwhile – both in O’Brian Hall and at the Army base – duty calls.