Willamette opens the door to hope and healing for College of Law standout

by Tom Morlan,

In the aftermath of personal loss, Nathaniel Woodward JD’20 found his calling as an advocate for accident victims and their families.

  • Nathaniel Woodward head shot

It was April 18, 2019, the last day of the spring semester at Willamette’s College of Law. Nathaniel Woodward was wrapping up his second year of law school and looking forward to a visit from his mother, Leslie.

Then came the phone call from his father, Wayne — and for a brief period, Woodward’s world fell apart. Leslie had passed away unexpectedly at the age of 60, leaving a feeling of emptiness that nothing could fill.

“I lost a lot of control at that point — I just wailed,” Woodward recalled. “We had spoken through FaceTime the night before, and she was coming in two days. We were going to go to the coast and rent a beach house. And telling my kids was hard, especially my daughter, Bridgette. She didn’t just lose a trip to the coast — she lost her best friend.”

Suddenly Woodward was headed to his hometown of Price, Utah, for his mother’s funeral. His professors allowed him to delay taking his finals, but when he returned for the tests, he struggled to find a sense of focus.

“It really affected me,” Woodward said. “I did very, very poorly on my finals, and the first time I truly considered dropping out of anything was at that point. I needed to be there for my family, for Philip and my little Bridgette.”

It wasn’t the first time he and his wife, Deborah, had suffered a significant personal loss: Their first son, Jonathan, was stillborn in 2014. But after a time of togetherness and mourning, Woodward regained his focus and set his sights on his final year of law school. 

He’ll graduate in May with a wealth of experience in law and a legacy of serving and inspiring Salem-area youth. And his deep reservoir of empathy will continue to serve him well as a law clerk for The Gatti Law Firm, which advocates for accident victims and their families.

An unconventional path to law school

Woodward’s winding road to a law career began at Utah State University, where he earned degrees in biology and history, served as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and worked as an award-winning science columnist for the Sun-Advocate. He was aiming for a career in science or medicine, but a particular aspect of his undergraduate experience gave him pause.

“The idea of undergrad was to either get a PhD and teach or go to medical school,” he said. “But then one day I was working in a cadaver lab, and I thought, ‘I don't know if I want to do this for the rest of my life.’”

In the midst of uncertainty  — and still grappling with the loss of Jonathan — Woodward felt it was time for a change. Then a thought came into his mind: What about law school?

He started messaging a friend who had graduated from Willamette’s College of Law and was now practicing in Oregon. The more Woodward learned about the field, the more intrigued he became. “I just wanted to be in a career where I was helping people,” he said. “Law just felt right.”

After visiting some of the most prestigious law schools in the country, he settled on Willamette. In contrast to the hyper-competitive nature of the other schools he visited, Willamette’s sense of community was refreshing. 

Delivering hope to victims and families

Within months of his arrival in Salem, a personal injury attorney in Lake Oswego messaged Woodward and said he was looking for a law clerk with a background in science. Woodward leaped at the opportunity, and all of his preconceived notions about so-called “ambulance chasers” were blown away.

“I saw that these lawyers are the complete opposite of what society perceives them to be,” Woodward said. “They truly want to help people. I worked with a lot of injury victims, and their stories were devastating.”

In May 2018, Woodward began serving as a law clerk for Swanson Lathen Prestwich PC in Salem. It was during this time he realized just how much of an impact he could have as a personal injury attorney.

Toward the end of 2018, the firm asked Woodward to go to a wrecking yard in Troutdale as part of a survivorship action. The victim in this case had been traveling through the Columbia River Gorge shortly before Christmas when he was killed in an accident through no fault of his own. 

Woodward’s task was to retrieve the gifts the victim had picked up for his family. 

“All the Christmas presents he’d bought for his children were in the car, this destroyed car, and the family wanted me to go get them,” Woodward recalled. “There’s no mentally preparing for this. I had to crawl through broken glass and find these presents — the last gifts this man was going to give to his family — and it was my job to facilitate their delivery. 

“I’ve written motions that have won money for people, but this time I felt I was doing something more. I got to deliver this type of healing that I couldn't do with a check.”

He’s been working for The Gatti Law Firm for more than a year now, representing victims of rape, bullying, workplace accidents and fatal collisions. He says his colleagues are the most empathetic people he’s ever met, and they’re all committed to making a difference.

“Nothing changes a company's policy more quickly than having to pay for something,” Woodward said. “So many of these clients who sit across from me don’t care so much about the money — they just want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. I always had a goal of not taking my work home with me, but this is a job I'm delighted to take home with me because I'm not just helping people. I’m helping society become safer.”

Finding a home in the Salem community

Willamette has done more than prepare Woodward for a rewarding career. It’s also given him a chance to make an impact in the broader community. 

Nathaniel Woodward at Street Law's Mock trial earlier in the spring 2020 semesterHe’s been a dedicated volunteer for Street Law, an alternative high school program aimed primarily at teen parents and early-college high school students in the Salem area. He’s spoken to middle school and high school students throughout the Salem community about overcoming life’s challenges. And he’s worked with Webelos in a local Scout troop.

“I always root for the underdog,” Woodward said. “A quarter of my Street Law class is made up of Dreamers, and they have actual concerns about the law. They want to fight, but they don't know where to start. I want to help these kids succeed in a world that's not designed for them to succeed. 

“My mom always believed in the magic of people — she really saw this ethereal thing that connects all of us. My Street Law kids are my little friends. It’s one way I can make a difference.”

Woodward said none of these experiences would have been possible if he’d gone to another law school. His professors shaped him in countless ways, and his classmates rallied around him — and around each other — in times of loss.

“Law school’s a competition,” Woodward said, “When you get an A, it means that someone else doesn’t get that A. But in spite of all these demands, the students still genuinely love each other. It’s a family, and it’s a family formed out of adversity — and I think that's one of the strongest families you can be a part of.”

About the Willamette University College of Law

The College of Law is a private law school located in Salem, Oregon at Willamette University, the oldest university in the western United States. Willamette Law boasts an innovative program designed to prepare leaders in government, private practice, and business with the lawyering skills needed in the 21st Century. In recent years, outside industry watchers such as Moody’s and The National Jurist Magazine have recognized Willamette Law for its positive job placement results. Willamette lawyers are the best dealmakers, problem solvers, community leaders, and change-makers in the most innovative and exciting region in the country. Our location — nestled in the heart of the Willamette Valley and across the street from the Oregon State Capitol, Supreme Court and many state agencies — is an advantage that cannot be matched anywhere in the region.

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