Constance Grieves, '16

Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Undergrad: Middle Tennessee State University
College major: Political Science
Law School activities: Chicago Law Foundation, Defenders, Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, Cafaro Scholar

Constance Grieves’s law school experience would have been different without Debra Cafaro.

For starters, without the full-tuition Cafaro Scholarship, Grieves, ’16, might not be at Chicago Law; “I’d probably have opted for a lesser school,” she said. Either way, she’d most likely be juggling classes and a job, just as she did during her undergraduate years at Middle Tennessee State University and a community college. And, although she doesn’t think she would have strayed entirely from her plan to pursue criminal defense work, law school debt undoubtedly would have influenced, and probably limited, her postgraduate choices.

“I’m really happy, and so grateful, not to be in the position of having to make that decision,” said Grieves, one of the first recipients of an award made possible by the $4 million Cafaro, ’82, donated to the Law School in 2013. In addition to being a cum laude graduate of the Law School, Cafaro is a University trustee and the chairman and CEO of Ventas, Inc., a Chicago-based real estate investment trust.

“This is the only time since I was 16 that I haven’t worked—it’s blowing my mind,” Grieves said. “As a result, I’ve been able to focus on being a good student and getting the skills I need to be a good lawyer. It’s alleviated a lot of stress.”

Cafaro’s gift established a program that will allow 22 students with substantial financial need to attend the Law School at no cost—four in the Class of 2016, and three in each of the following six classes. Cafaro was the first member of her family to attend college, and she has said that her Law School degree was a critical foundation for her business career.

“She has such a presence. She’s a powerful woman, and you can just feel it before she even says a word,” said Grieves, who had dinner with Cafaro and her family last year. “She’s impressive.”

Grieves, 33, comes from a family that emphasized getting a job after high school rather than going to college. But her older sister, who now has a PhD, had chosen to continue her education, becoming the first college graduate in the family. She pushed Grieves to do the same.

“I always told her I couldn’t afford it,” Grieves said. But when she was 25, Grieves enrolled in community college then transferred to a state school, paying her tuition with money she earned waiting tables. From the beginning, she knew she wanted to help people, and “the law is a very powerful tool,” she said.

She began to think about going to law school, sometimes discussing her aspirations with a federal defender who was a regular at the steakhouse where she worked. The lawyer encouraged her, and he put in a good word when she applied as an undergraduate for an internship at the federal public defender’s office in Nashville, where he worked. She landed the role—and felt a connection to the work. One case that particularly touched her involved a man who had been charged with felony possession of a firearm.

“It was a terrible injustice—there was no real evidence to tie him to the crime,” she said. “We worked really hard on the case, and I was able to work closely with his attorney. We got an acquittal, which was the best feeling of my life.”

Now that she’s at the Law School, Grieves is able to devote herself to realizing her dream, serving on the boards of Defenders and the Chicago Law Foundation, doing pro bono public defense work, and working on the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic. But the scholarship’s impact is one that extends beyond the financial assistance.

“To have someone invest in me like this really means a lot,” Grieves said. “I’m someone who has always paid my own way for everything. Now I think I actually try harder because it’s for her. On some level, I want to make Debra Cafaro proud and to have her know that her money was well spent.” 

Advice for 1Ls:

"Stay true to yourself," Grieves said, "And don't lose sight of what you hoped to accomplish when you decided to go to law school."