Student Veteran of the Year: 3L Michael Meszaros recognized for pro bono work with veterans

Nov 08, 2023 | Students

by Lindsay Wilcox

Michael Meszaros, a white man with dark-brown hair and blue eyes wearing a white collared shirt and navy blue blazerWhile 3L Michael Meszaros was stationed in Alaska as a U.S. Army company commander, he realized law school would offer him opportunities to help people at the darkest points in their lives—which matched his zeal for community and volunteerism. Even though graduation is still several months away, Meszaros is already fulfilling this dream. He recently received the University of Utah’s Student Veteran of the Year award for his pro bono work with veterans.

“It was a great honor to be recognized, but the better consequence has been the opportunity to expand the conversation around veterans and the challenges we face reintegrating into civilian society after our service,” Meszaros says. “We live at a particularly perilous intersection of mental health and societal issues that leaves us especially vulnerable to exploitation. We are more than patriotic photo opportunities, talking points, or a budget line item. We need to demand better from our elected leaders, and I am hoping to use my voice to turn up the volume on the conversation around these issues in our community.”

Dr. Caisa Royer, Pro Bono Initiative (PBI) director, says Meszaros has been a strong leader for the Veterans Legal Site (VLS), held at the Veterans Affairs building near campus, and has run the program since September 2022.

“When the program returned to in-person operations after the pandemic, he took the reins and made the program more successful than ever. He truly cares about the experience of the clients, and that is evident in how he manages the program,” Royer says. “So many students share with me that the VLS is their favorite PBI site to volunteer with, and much of that is due to Mike.”

Professor Leslie Francis, who teaches Meszaros in her legal profession class, attended the football game at which he received his award and says Utah Law should be “singing his praises to the highest.”

“Michael consistently demonstrates great thoughtfulness about and sensitivity to the obligations of members of the legal profession to serve others,” she expresses.

Meszaros graduated from the United States Military Academy West Point and served for nine years in the Army after graduating, serving as Bradley platoon leader, scout platoon leader, TAAC-East battle captain, company commander, and brigade chief of plans. He recalls a few great mentors during his military service who instilled the importance of taking care of soldiers.

“There has always been a principle in the Army that officers and leaders eat last. My mentors taught me that ‘eating last’ meant so much more than being last in the chow line. It meant putting my soldiers’ needs before my own, always. It meant refusing to give into bureaucratic and political indifference. It meant doing what’s right regardless of the consequences,” Meszaros says. “I am passionate about pro bono work because this country constantly asks service members and veterans to carry an outsized load while refusing to take care of us when we come home. I am passionate about this work because veterans deserve better.”

Since Meszaros was in Alaska when he decided to attend law school, he’d fallen in love with the mountains and knew he needed to find a place with access to the outdoors. But he also decided on Utah Law because of its focus on people-centric lawyering, pro bono service and experiential learning. Now that he’ll soon be embarking on a career, those opportunities have prepared Meszaros for the next step.

“I want to work in indigent criminal defense. I want to continue to advocate for the voiceless in our society and hold our systems and officials accountable,” he says.

Meszaros recently organized a Veterans Day panel with several local attorneys and mental health professionals, who explained their work to address complex legal and societal issues the veteran community regularly faces. As Veterans Day approaches, Meszaros says he wishes others had a deeper appreciation for veterans’ humanity.

“Americans want to believe that veterans are invincible, that we represent the best qualities our country has to offer, but we aren’t. We are regular people who volunteered to serve, which is something that should be celebrated—especially when an increasingly small proportion of our population chooses to serve,” he says. “Less than 7 percent of the population has served, down from 18% in 1980. We are creating a warrior caste within our country that allows the average American to distance themselves from the American military.”

Though he is no longer serving in the Army, the leadership lessons Meszaros learned there have stuck with him.

“My battalion commander, Paulie Krattiger, taught me the most important lesson I ever learned about leadership in the Army. He said, ‘Just tell your soldiers you love them, because some of them have never heard that before,'” Meszaros recalls. “It took some time to fully understand the power of these lessons. But they were ultimately the foundation of what made me a successful leader.”

Learn more about the Pro Bono Initiative and the Veterans Legal Site.