Dual degrees: Army vet studying law while pursuing a Ph.D.


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Jeffrey Bristol might well be considered a poster child for “late bloomers.”

Although Bristol failed most of his high school courses and his grades were too poor for university, he now holds a BA in history from Marlboro College, a master’s in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Chicago, and is both a rising 3L at the University of Michigan Law School and a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Boston University.

And along the way, he landed a few prestigious fellowships.

Bristol’s first step after high school was the military. The son of a U.S. Army veteran, he had always wanted to be in the service, and the Army offered interesting opportunities to explore the world and have adventure.

Signing up to become a linguist, he hoped to land Russian, or be assigned Arabic and Hebrew with the goal of later becoming a biblical archaeologist.

“The three languages I didn’t want were Tagalog, Thai or Farsi because they didn’t seem as useful as other languages, so I was a bit disappointed when I got assigned
Persian,” he said.

In the summer of 2001, Bristol started at the Defense Language Institute in California. Then the 9/11 terror attacks knocked the world off its axis.

“All of a sudden I was in a lot more demand and the language choice seemed not such a bad one,” he said.

After serving 5 years as a Persian linguist in the U.S. Army, with a deployment to Afghanistan, Bristol then worked a government contractor in Iraq and in the U.S.

His travels have continued while studying for his Ph.D. in anthropology, conducting research in North and West Africa as well as stateside.

Bristol also teaches classes in the Persian language, biological and cultural anthropology, and notes that teaching improves both the teacher and the student.

“Teaching requires one to review material learned previously very closely, to re-explain it in detail and to focus on the details,” he said. “Also, students often have perspectives different than those the teacher may have encountered before, which forces him to reflect on the material anew.

“It’s also wonderful to see students learning new material and gaining a new perspective than they had previously. It’s also nice if you can impart a bit of rigorous thinking to them as well, which should be the goal of any college class.”

Bristol’s interests at MLaw are in contracts, comparative law, and the sociology of law.

“I’ve always been interested in studying the law,” he said. “My subfield in anthropology is political and legal anthropology, which is partly the study of comparative law, but also the study of what law is and how different societies use it.

“I find the law interesting because it’s how people manage and order their interactions with one another in a society like ours,” he added.

Law may not produce things or create ideas, Bristol said,” but it does allow people to organize themselves and get along in an incredibly complex society. Without it, nothing we do would be possible, but it’s not really much of anything in and of itself.

“It’s a bit of a cypher — law alone is nothing special, just a set of rules we make up, but just it is the set of rules that makes everything else possible simply because we all believe it. It’s the ultimate trick we play on ourselves.”

“If a person wants to know how to make our society work, however, they need to know and understand the law. The law is simultaneously much more and much less than people think it is and that attracts me, both intellectually and practically.”

In addition to his MLaw studies, Bristol is a graduate student instructor in the U-M honors college.

“I really like how integrated the law school is with the college teaching-wise,” he said. “It’s great to be able to nurture both aspects of my interest about the law — the practical, usable part I study and the law school and the theoretical, academic part I can teach about at the university. It really enhances my experience.”

Bristol is one of five MLaw Cutler Fellows who headed to D.C. earlier this year for the sixth annual Salzburg Cutler Fellows Program, exploring the future of public and private international law.

For Bristol, the best part of the two-day program was getting to know the different law students and career international lawyers.

“International law is a bit of an anomalous field. It’s not particularly unified, but is something like a separate legal discipline and a pastiche of practices,” he said. “Seeing how others had managed to navigate things and create more interesting careers, or how they were planning to, was really helpful for clarifying my thoughts about where my career might fit in with international law and how to pursue such a career should I desire to do it.”

In terms of U.S. law, Bristol is particularly interested in contracts as it meshes with his interest in how people use the law to order their lives and regulate their interactions.
Comparative law comes from his general interest in anthropology and its cross-cultural comparative method.

Bristol also is a Frederic Bastiat Fellow at George Washington University’s Mercatus Center, a nonprofit free-market-oriented research, education, and outreach think tank that aims to bridge the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems.

The Fellowship flies graduate students from various schools in for 4-5 weekends over the school year to discuss a set of readings to do with “mainline” economics as opposed to “mainstream” economics.

“The difference being that the former is concerned with economics as a science of human relations rather than economics as a science of decision-making, which is what characterizes most of the economic thinking in academic departments today,” Bristol said.

He said the readings were “interesting, informative, the discussions great and the experience helped develop my understanding of Austrian and related schools of economics which are too often lampooned in ways that indicate their thinking is much less understood than it should be. It’s also rare to find conservative economics and economists that take culture as seriously as the folks at Mercatus do, a serious gap,” Bristol said.

A native Floridian who enjoys rowing and squash in his spare time, Bristol’s current “hobby” is his all-consuming Ph.D. dissertation focusing on legal theory and Islamic law in the United States. His career aspirations are to be a statesman and a scholar.

“I will likely do private practice at first, and I may stay there, but I do intend to teach as an adjunct in an anthropology department and work independently as a scholar while figuring out the statesman part later,” he said.