A cool January morning saw Lieutenant Colonel Alex Douvas (JD ’05) return to campus with a small entourage of Marine Corps recruiters to discuss his work as a Marine Corps “judge advocate” (military lawyer) with Fowler students interested in learning about what it might offer. It has been ten years since Douvas was last on campus, due to military moves that kept him away from his alma mater, and he adds that the experience of being back at his law school is “a little surreal” from the vantage point of an established career in the military, “it’s fun to come back and watch a new generation of law students beginning their journey.”

By his own admission, LtCol Douvas was not an exemplary law student by any stretch of the imagination. “After eighteen years as a lawyer, I sometimes marvel that I even became a lawyer,” he jokes. A journalism major with a passion for language and editor of his student newspaper, Douvas’ path to the law was somewhat circuitous and hardly an obvious choice. He struggled with law school initially – he jokes about how he “legendarily bombed” his first semester Civil Procedure final but adds that he wasn’t laughing about it at the time – and felt initially unprepared for what would be required of him as a lawyer. However, he largely attributes his eventual success to professors like Nancy Schultz and Hugh Hewitt, whose enthusiasm and encouragement helped to “keep me in the game” throughout law school, graduating from Chapman and ultimately passing the bar exam. Reflecting on one of his favorite professors, Douvas adds, “Nancy [Schultz] was an excellent teacher, but more than that, she was a friend and mentor who opened my eyes to a bigger view of the world than what I came into law school with. But that’s exactly what great teachers do – they stretch your understanding of the world.”

Nor was the path to becoming a Marine judge advocate especially clear. He says of his initial reason for joining the most demanding branch of the military: “There was something about the challenge of becoming a Marine that I just couldn’t shake.” Similar to the challenge of law school and becoming a lawyer, his decision centered less around a plan, and more around a question: “Can I do this?” Like his decision to go to law school, only by accepting the challenge would he be able to find out the answer.

After passing the California bar and nearly a year of Marine Corps training – first to learn the military skills common to all Marine officers, “show me another lawyer job where you learn how to blow things up,” then to learn the nuances of the military legal system – Douvas’ early career as a judge advocate was a far cry from what he had expected. Even as a student at Chapman, Douvas had initially envisioned a career path that involved serving a few years as a Marine prosecutor before becoming a prosecutor in a local DA’s office. The Marine Corps, it turned out, had other ideas, and instead assigned him as a defense lawyer, which, as he has it, was “not at all part of the plan.” But, Douvas adds, chuckling, “It was the best thing that could have happened because it changed me as a person.” And laugh he should; after eighteen years in the Marine Corps, Douvas is now the Regional Defense Counsel for the Western United States, training and supervising dozens of young Marine defense lawyers whose job is to challenge the Marine Corps’ efforts to prosecute their clients. It is a far cry from where he had originally set his sights, and he seems happier for it.

The experience of defending Marines instead of prosecuting them once again stretched his understanding of the world, but then came another deviation from his plan: being selected (“kicking and screaming,” Douvas adds) to serve as Aide-de-Camp to the Commanding General. Douvas explains that, for someone whose goal was to be a lawyer in the military, being selected to manage the day-to-day affairs of a non-lawyer, career infantry general seemed far from an ideal way to prepare for life in the civilian legal sector. But he stuck it out – getting a “30,000 foot view of the Marine Corps” in the process – and one day plucked up enough courage to ask the general directly, “Why me?” The general’s answer was shockingly simple and served to square Douvas away on some mistaken assumptions of his own. The general explained that his previous Aide had also been a lawyer, and that he quickly came to value lawyers as aides for their hard-wired ability to think critically, communicate clearly and problem-solve in ways that he had come to find utterly indispensable. The aide assignment Douvas went into with loathing had seemingly brought him full circle – teaching him the value that lawyers bring to the Marine Corps as a whole, not just to their individual legal clients.

It was formative experiences like this that helped Douvas shed some of “my black and white thinking about the world” that he had carried with him into law school. Some of it was already stripped away by professors like Schultz, three tough years of law school, and the handful of early career curveballs thrown at him by the Marine Corps. But these experiences all pushed him out of a predetermined comfort zone, forcing him to grow personally as his career in the Marines progressed by tackling roles he would never have chosen for himself.

Douvas explains that there is a saying in the Marine Corps when you get a new assignment (something that happens every 2-3 years), especially one you don’t want: “Grow where you are planted.” And grow he has. From prosecuting war crimes during his first deployment in Afghanistan, to serving as the legal advisor to the Marine Corps’ crisis response force during combat operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, to his dream assignment teaching military lawyers as a criminal law professor at the military’s joint-service law school in Charlottesville, VA, Douvas has had plenty of time to grow into himself, personally as well as professionally. Quoting the famous Rolling Stones song, Douvas shares with the interested Fowler students what he always tells his new Marine Corps attorneys: “In the Marine Corps, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”

I ask Douvas if he ever did get what he initially wanted – the chance to be a Marine prosecutor – and he laughs. “Yes, for four years – and two of them as a full-time Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego.” How did a Marine prosecutor come to work in the U.S. Attorney’s office? Douvas explains he was “loaned out” to the U.S. Attorney’s office for two years to prosecute civilian crimes occurring on U.S. bases, where neither the military nor the state has jurisdiction. “So, I got to be a prosecutor in both the military and in the civilian world – all while being a Marine,” Douvas says. “I finally got to do what I always believed I wanted to do.” Though he enjoyed the experience of working with some of the best prosecutors in the country, he explains why, after 18 years of active duty, he never got to work as a DA, as he originally had planned. “There was still something missing,” something Douvas believes “can only be found in the Marines.”

“You constantly meet and work with people you have nothing in common with. People who share nothing of your experience, your upbringing, your ethnic or socio-economic background, people who have been on a totally different journey than you. But that journey brought us all here, to the same place, with a common mission and identity – that’s what it’s like working in the Marines.”

Life in the Marines can be tough, and family is required to make many sacrifices for their Marine’s commitment to serving – Douvas’ own family being no exception. However, as he points out, once you are committed, the returns on that commitment are real. He maintains that the Marine Corps is a great teacher, and it certainly seems to have been for Douvas. “You can’t deploy and spend months away from your family and your home serving with a team of people who are in many ways nothing like you, and not be shaped by learning from their experiences, how they are different from you, yet how you are all the same,” he offers. “They become like family.”

It is often said that “hindsight is 20/20,” and in hindsight, the challenges laid down by law school and the Marine Corps have been the perfect fit for alumnus LtCol Alex Douvas. From his admittedly humble beginnings as a bewildered 1L at Chapman to the many opportunities the Marine Corps has given him to adapt and grow, LtCol Douvas has since built a laudable career for himself as a leader within the Marine Corps legal community. He credits his experience at Chapman for starting him on this journey, and hopes his visit to Fowler School of Law will encourage new generations of Fowler alum to embrace the challenges – and growth – that the Marine Corps has offered him.