After graduating from Creston High School and the University of Michigan, Brent Geers joined the military to make a new way for himself. Photo by Jim Gebben
Which was worse: war or law school?
Brent Geers chuckles at the question, then reflects on the four years he spent abroad fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning home to Grand Rapids, attending Thomas Cooley Law School and becoming its first African-American graduate to open his own practice locally.
“There were times when I thought it’d just be easier to go back in the military,” muses the veteran, now a certified lawyer running his practice, Geers Law.
“At least in the military, after a while you know what to expect, and there’s a lot of times in law school and even in the practice, you don’t know what to expect and you can’t even prepare for it … but, no: The bar is not worse than combat.”
After hearing Geers’ life story, one wonders if there is anything the 34-year old, born and raised in Grand Rapids, isn’t prepared for.
He grew up in East Hills, an only child raised by his single mother, Marlene, and his grandmother, Anne. His father’s absence not only made life difficult but also gave Geers his first experience with the legal world.
“I remember my first experience talking to a lawyer was my mom’s lawyer. I was about 6. It was Tom Dilley, and they used to have a well-established family practice here. He was representing her in getting child support, and I remember talking to him in his office,” Geers said. “Just walking into his office was larger than life. It was a traditional lawyer office, with the big leather chairs and books and big desk. … I never imagined that would ever be me.”
Growing up, Geers never seemed to have direction, he said, until the summer before his junior year at Creston High School when he attended a camp that offered high school students tours of Grand Valley State University’s engineering program.
“Those (higher education partnerships with high schools) were absolutely important, because my mom dropped out of high school and I didn’t know anyone who’d gone to college,” he said. “I wanted to get away from childhood and start new. I thought Grand Rapids was boring — had no reason to stay — and I thought (college) was the opportunity to get away and start a new life.”
A score of 32 on Geers’ ACTs opened the doors to the University of Michigan. He graduated in 2001 with a B.A. in American culture. It was the realization not only of his dream, he said, but also his mother’s dream.
“She was very proud. It felt like an accomplishment for all of us,” he said. “In some sense, it was her vision coming true.”
Even after graduation, however, Geers felt the urge to get away and make a new life for himself. The military offered the opportunity. He joined the U.S. Army in November 2002, a little more than a year after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I saw it as a unique moment to be a part of history. It was an important time and my circumstances of life were right,” he said. “I was young, unattached. I’d always wanted to be in the military at some point in my life, so I thought, ‘Do it now.’”
Geers was assigned to the 92nd Military Police Company in Baumholder, Germany, before volunteering to deploy to western Baghdad, Iraq, and join a sister company tasked with training the Iraqi police force. He was a member of the unit that performed perimeter security when President George W. Bush arrived for Thanksgiving.
Combat was almost like a scene out of the film “Forrest Gump,” he said, adding that “things would just happen.” On four separate occasions, his vehicle was hit by IEDs, but he was never wounded.
“This was before the Green Zone was built. … We were just a little compound. We were right across the street from the crossed sabers (Victory Arch). It was one of Saddam’s former palaces,” he said. “One of the first times we went outside the gate, we were on patrol and we drove into a mass protest where someone flipped a burning car … just thousands of people protesting America. Just craziness.”
In 2005, Geers deployed to Khandahar, Afghanistan, where he was promoted to sergeant and led prisoner escorts. It was there that he began to understand law and order as a necessary system of community survival.
“Sometimes what doesn’t necessarily seem fair or just, there’s bigger forces that explain why things happen the way they do. Take for example (capturing) a guy who appears to be a simple villager,” he said. “It may not always be apparent to the immediate people involved because a lot of those orders to pick people up come down from higher sources and they have different intelligence than you might have on the ground. (It turned out) other people who had been captured before gave this guy’s name. He appeared to be a simple villager, but he’d had connections.”
A week away from returning stateside, Geers discovered his mother had terminal melanoma skin cancer. He was allowed to come home early and assist with her hospice care. She died a few weeks after her only son had at last returned from war. Geers said, “It was tough.”
Soon afterward, he decided to set his sights on law school and began taking classes at Cooley Law School in January 2007, graduating in 2012. He said he stayed in Grand Rapids to be close to his grandmother, whom he still checks up on every day and helps manage her finances.
Geers did an internship at Hendricks and Watkins PLC, which kept him on after he received his official license. He now runs his own practice, which he hopes to transform someday into a community nonprofit.
“There’s a huge need that’s not fulfilled at all between very low-income legal aid and regular firms,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of people in that middle that don’t necessarily qualify for legal aid but can’t afford regular attorney fees. I think there’s a way you can structure your fees and become a very lean practice, with systems in place where you can charge affordable rates and still have a living wage for yourself.”
It’s ironic, Geers laughed, realizing that the boy who used to feel so desperate to get out of Grand Rapids has now returned a respected veteran, successful lawyer and happily married man. He and his wife, Ronda, plan on being long-term residents.
“Grand Rapids is now an exciting place to be. There’s a lot of opportunities here,” he said. “After travelling a little bit around the world and country, I’ve realized there’s a lot worse places than this.”
The city of his youth is more than his home. It’s his next mission, and as a lawyer he now fights for his defendants, many of whom share similar features to his own upbringing, he said. He could easily be in their shoes, but he isn’t, he said. He had a good mom.
“I think about it every day and I don’t forget it. I try to remember that when I talk to each individual, and to some level, I relate. But for whatever, I could be in their position,” he said.
“I think my Mom knew it. She’d always believed in me.”