UM Graduate Fights for the Underdog on Path to Law Degree

UM student Stephen Hayes will graduate in May with double majors in history and philosophy, as well as a minor in African-American Studies. His experience at UM has prepared him for his next step toward becoming a lawyer.

By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service

MISSOULA – The tale of David and Goliath is well known. Simply put, the underdog, against all odds, triumphs against the bigger, bullish opponent. University of Montana senior Stephen Hayes wants to add to the story: He wants to support the Davids of the world as their lawyer. 

“I feel compelled to be on the side of David fighting against Goliath. Fighting for the little guy is something that’s important to me,” Hayes said. “Because that's the case, it naturally lends to wanting to investigate that from an academic standpoint.”

A nontraditional undergraduate and member of the Davidson Honors College, Hayes spent the past four years doing just that. While taking on extra legal work and volunteering, he achieved double majors in history and philosophy, as well as a minor in African-American Studies. Facing the bittersweet moment of graduation, the rigors of UM’s programs have brought Hayes one step closer to his goal of representing the underdog in a court of law. 

For most of Hayes’ life though, he commanded audiences from a concert stage rather than a courtroom. 

His journey into academia began in the early 2000s at his local college, the University of Denver, where he applied his talent as a musician to his major, music. After a few semesters, Hayes realized studying music was stifling his enjoyment of it. Needing a change of scenery, he left for Missoula in 2004, sight unseen, to connect with musician friends who attended UM. 

“I wasn’t intending on staying here permanently, but I just enjoyed Missoula,” he said.

Hayes spent the next several years playing local gigs – primarily rock and blues but sometimes funk, while also working day jobs. Eventually, he began feeling unfulfilled at work, giving way to aspirations of law school. 

Hayes looked to his new hometown’s college and enrolled in UM in spring 2019, choosing his combination of majors and minors to gain the cultural and historical context needed to represent marginalized groups as a lawyer. 

UM’s initial allure was proximity. Hayes submitted multiple transfer applications his first year, but in scrutinizing other opportunities he was pleasantly surprised to find that, this time, his hometown university was the best fit. 

“It was a benefit to have the University right here in my backyard, but I wanted to make sure it was the right place for me, and I gave myself other options to make sure of that,” Hayes said. “Ultimately, it was the right place”

Part of what made UM right was the deep connections he forged with faculty. As a nontraditional student, Hayes found community and mentorship through relationships with professors throughout his departments. 

“My ability to be as successful as I have been at the University is in no small part due to the amazing faculty and staff that have allowed me to flourish here,” Hayes said. “These are people I know I will continue to be in touch with for the rest of my life.”

They were equally impressed with him, and would go on to lift up Hayes’ academic efforts. 

“Immediately, he stood out as a student who was not only uncommonly conscientious, but plain brilliant,” said Dr. Tobin Miller Shearer, who taught Hayes in several courses. “That’s been the case with every class he’s taken with me.”

Shearer, a UM history professor, also serves as director of African-American Studies and director of history graduate studies. What made Hayes stand out from the hundreds of students Shearer has taught, he said, is his creative historical insight.

It was in Shearer’s advanced writing in history course that Hayes wrote a paper demonstrating that novel insight, earning him the Richard Drake Writing Award for excellence in writing, imagination in research and force of argument. The paper was written at an unprecedented level that not only described history but interpreted it through an original lens, providing a new way for historians to understand the past, Shearer said. Hayes recently presented it at the Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference in Washington.

The paper focused on grassroots activism in Black communities of Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement, asking historians to rethink the assumption that activists resisted within a violent or nonviolent binary. His argument reframed resistance as a continuum where activists frequently traversed to and from ends of the spectrum. 

Hayes also gained experience for his career goals by working part time for a local civil litigation law firm. He also volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocate of Missoula.

CASA advocates speak on behalf of vulnerable abused and neglected children in the court system. The work and the emotional toll it takes can be difficult. But knowing that a child’s life is even marginally better gives Hayes a sense of fulfillment and purpose.

“I consider that a win; it doesn't matter how much work or effort,” Hayes said. “Any child that ends up there, they're in a difficult situation.”

Between his academic and extracurricular pursuits, Hayes also continued to play music for his own enjoyment and for creative assignments. He composed a piano piece in one of Shearer’s classes that connected to academic themes explored that semester, leaving him impressed with both Hayes’ talent and inventiveness. 

After graduation, Hayes will work full time for the law firm and study for the Law School Admission Test. The connections he made at UM also feel bittersweet about Hayes’ departure, but excited for his next step and the impact he will go on to make.

“He’s going to be the kind of person who gets the attention of those around him just by his sheer excellence, and will bring his intellect to bear on the world’s problems in a way that is free of cynicism and full of the highest ethical conduct,” Shearer said. “That's going to take him to good places. That’s going to make a difference in the world.”


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,