The rigor of law school is notorious for being difficult even for the brilliant student, and being able to go through such an arduous academic journey with a learning disability seems unimaginable. However, that is precisely what U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Zach Terwilliger did.
Terwilliger received his undergraduate degree from the University in 2005 and his Juris Doctor degree from the William and Mary School of Law in 2007. Behind his various titles and degrees, though, are the inevitable challenges he had to overcome — some of which were predominantly caused by his dyslexia.
Although the reading-heavy coursework that comes with law school is daunting for the average individual, Terwilliger never let his dyslexia stand in his way of achieving his goals.
“It makes me a slow reader at times, [but] it makes me very analytical,” Terwilliger said. “There were aspects of law school where I really succeeded … But when we [had to] regurgitate facts and holdings of cases, it was incredibly demanding. So whereas some of my classmates could get their readings done in three or four hours, it would take me five or six.”
His career path is notably impressive, consisting of accolades including being a paralegal for the Department of Justice and working as an assistant U.S. attorney, to serving as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia — all within the span of 20 years. It was while serving as a paralegal at the DOJ between his receiving his undergraduate degree and law school that Terwilliger solidified his future intentions.
“It’s there where I realized that there is a mission — a service-oriented mission,” Terwilliger said. “There’s a mission of not only public service but of helping others in cleaning up communities.”
Terwilliger has also inspired others throughout his career thus far, including Lana Robins, a third-year student at the U.Va. School of Law. As an undergraduate at George Washington University, Robins was a student in a class that Terwilliger co-taught with assistant U.S. attorney and University alumnus Michael Frank. Witnessing the commitment and passion that Terwilliger embodied encouraged Robins to seek his mentorship in what would become a formative experience for her as she continues her journey towards a career in law. She took to heart some new advice from his recent visit to the School of Law Feb. 20.
“Chaos is a ladder, and if you can dig deep during that chaos and work harder than you have ever worked before, you can really make things happen,” Robins said. “That really resonated with me and was a really great lesson to keep in mind as I'm being thrown into my first few years of legal practice too.”
As Robins continues her pursuit of law through her clerkship, she hopes to continue in Terwilliger’s footsteps as a federal attorney through what she has learned as a student in his class at George Washington and his role as a mentor in her life.
“[I’m] just going to keep [Terwilliger’s] advice,” Robins said. “Digging deep, working hard, being kind to people, being passionate about what you do and being committed to helping others and mentoring others.”
Inspiring others through his consistent strive for justice, Terwilliger had known from the start that he wanted to be someone who was able to use his skills of communication to help people within his community. Despite the hardships Terwilliger knew he would have to face to serve his community through the law, he knew these challenges would only be a small obstacle in the way of pursuing his passion — to help victims and make their voices heard.
His perseverance is further demonstrated in his commitment to “Project Guardian,” an effort which aims to reduce gun violence in Washington, D.C. by making it legally harder to traffick guns from Virginia into district neighborhoods. Terwilliger’s desire to be a part of the solution and make a positive impact is evident in his priorities that focus on the welfare of the people.
“One of the things that’s important to me is that we focus on all communities — it’s not just communities that complain or have political influence,” Terwilliger said. “It’s not a particularly complex subject, but it’s one that’s important, and it’s one that we’re focused on.”
Beyond his formidable legal pursuits, Terwilliger has always managed to leave his impact on the people around him with his dedication and passion for justice. Larry J. Sabato, politics professor and founder and director of the Center for Politics, recognized the lawyer’s potential when he had invited Terwilliger — his undergraduate student at the time — to intern at the Center for Politics.
“[Terwilliger] was an intelligent and hard-working student,” Sabato said. “When you asked [Terwilliger] to do something, you could be sure it would get done well… his record proves that. He has achieved an influential position at a very young age [and] I have no doubt he’ll go even further in his career.”