Student Spotlight: Rylie Pennell          J.D. Candidate '24

March 29, 2024


Hi Rylie. So first off, where are you from?

I’m from Virginia. I was actually born in Florida, but we moved to Virginia when I was very young I was seven so I really don’t have much of a memory of living in Florida. I just came back by happenstance.


Was there something about being born in Florida that drew you to apply to law school here?

It was a coincidence, but I joke that it feels like coming full circle. When I was in Virginia I used to joke that since I was born in Florida cold weather doesn’t work for me. I had no memory of the weather down here at all, I was just being ridiculous. But once I moved down here I felt like I was in my natural habitat again. I feel like things just work out for a reason, so it was probably meant to be.


What was your major in college?

I actually majored in computational and systems neuroscience at Virginia Tech. My focus was on the more mathematical and computer-based side of neuroscience and the medical field: so, like, programming the machines people use for EKGs and for monitoring brain waves and things like that. I did my senior thesis on the effects of lithium in treating bipolar disorder.


Did you have a minor?

I minored in PPE: Philosophy, Political Science and Economics. So that’s where I got my fix for writing and the humanities.


So what was it that drew you to law school straight out of undergrad, especially since you had such a different major?

I graduated from Virginia Tech in three years, then went right to Stetson. 

"I actually knew going into college that I wanted to be a lawyer, I just didn’t know what that was going to look like."

I was thinking at first it might be intellectual property law which requires a STEM background at least patent law does. I used to joke to myself that in the event I didn’t get into law school it’s a better backup to have neuroscience than a philosophy degree.

Plus I also just really loved neuroscience, and I’d done some research prior to the admissions process about what types of majors have the most success while they’re in the practice of law and overwhelmingly the articles that I found said that people that have a STEM background had the highest performance in law school because they took those really analytical reasoning based courses, and they have a higher capacity for following that “if this, then that” logic the same way you would in coding. So it was kind of a strategic decision on my part to choose a STEM major as a better backup, and I felt that it would open a lot of opportunities in the practice of law to have that different background.


What made you want to go to law school?

My senior year of high school I went through a pretty tumultuous family event that involved a lot of lawyers and a lot of law enforcement and it was a very eye-opening experience for me.

In the middle of all this, I realized the impact my dad’s attorney had in my life and in his life. 

"At an early age, I got to see the effects of really good advocacy and really bad advocacy and I felt really just motivated and moved by my dad’s attorney."

At some point I had a conversation with my dad’s attorney during all this crazy family stuff and he said, ‘It sounds like maybe you might have a calling for law.’ And I thought, ‘Huh, maybe I do.’ So I looked into it and, I don’t know, as soon as someone said it out loud I just thought: that makes a lot of sense for me. I’ve stayed in touch with him for years and we frequently get dinner and talk about law and how things are going with school.

I’m not necessarily a religious person but I am someone who believes these things happen for a reason and I think it gave me a really good nudge in the right direction about what I was meant to do.


So what made you choose Stetson?

I really only had two requirements for law school: first that it have a good trial program and second that it be further south of the Mason Dixon line because I was cold in Virginia [laughs].

So a really quick google search and Stetson came up immediately. At the time I think they were number 3 in the country for trial advocacy, now we’re number 1. So I was definitely considering the prestige of the program because I wanted to get a lot of skills-based training. 

When I went to law school I thought okay, if I’m going to get another degree I really need to think through the financial implications of this because it’s a huge commitment. But then Stetson offered me pretty much a full ride scholarship! 

"Stetson was my first choice because of the program, the location, and the people I talked to. I didn’t even have to tour the school, I just had a good feeling. It was a clear decision for me."


What do you think of Gulfport?

I love Gulfport! Gulfport just has so much character and personality. It’s colorful and it’s beachy, and you walk to the pier and there’s people out at 1 o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday having the time of their lives. There’s no shortage of fun people to talk to. You can strike up a conversation with anybody and they’ll have a weird, interesting story for you. Plus you’re close to St. Pete where there’s a lot of restaurants and nightlife and young professionals. It’s just the perfect combination of a city feeling without all the downsides.


What were your favorite courses in your first year?

It was a tie for me I think. I liked Civil Procedure, not just because of the course material, but because of Professor Virelli. I took his Administrative Law class immediately after and became his teaching assistant and research assistant. He’s the best. You can just talk to him for hours. I pop into his office for 5 minutes and it becomes a 25 minute conversation about if we could outrun his son’s lacrosse team.

I also really enjoyed Contracts with Professor Morrissey. He’s very outgoing, extroverted, and funny and he makes what could otherwise be a very dull topic really fun and very engaging.

The class I most enjoyed for the actual class content was Torts.

"I took Torts my spring semester with Professor Kaye, and he’s very much a philosopher."

He thinks about the philosophy of the law a lot and I just really like understanding where things come from. Maybe that’s the STEM background in me and my philosophy minor, but I really like talking about the origin of things, then following the way they work and develop. We spent a lot of time in his class talking about the origins of English and American common law and the very discourse based Socratic method that he used worked very well for me.


You’ve cycled through a few different areas of law that you’ve wanted to specialize in while you’ve been at Stetson. Do you feel like you’ve settled on which area you want to focus on or is it still up in the air?

It’s somewhat up in the air, but less so than it used to be. Originally I wanted to do IP [intellectual property] law. That was my first semester identity. I wanted to become an IP lawyer and I was looking for IP firms. But then I realized the classes and the work that I enjoyed most were the very active classes that involved me talking to people and that really stimulated the trial work that I knew I wanted to do. And IP litigation sure there’s patent prosecution and things like that but very rarely do those cases go to a true trial and I just realized that wasn’t appealing to me and I loved trial work way too much to confine myself to a very desk oriented job.

Then that summer I got a job working for a medical malpractice plaintiff’s firm and I loved that work. I still love that work. I felt very fulfilled doing that: helping people that have been truly wronged and butchered by doctors that oftentimes just didn’t show a whole lot of remorse or frankly had no business doing those procedures in the first place. I felt a lot of validation and fulfillment going and helping those people and working in a firm where the aim was to provide people with relief. And it actually ended up being really fitting because the first big trial I ever worked with that firm was a neuroscience case so I fit right in!

My 2L summer I got approached by a lot of larger firms and I accepted a position [over the summer] at Adams and Reese and I kind of gave the big law route a try for a while. The people there are so wonderful. They’re so kind: they’re fun to be around, easy to work with, and they really take their time to teach me. I love working there. So they did civil litigation for construction, they did some insurance liability defense, they did some bankruptcy and things like that, so areas of law that I didn’t particularly have a calling for. But they offered me a position after graduation and I accepted it because I was very happy to work with them and coming from my background with my financial circumstances, it was a clear, comfortable job.

So I accepted that job and I fully intended to go and practice with Adams and Reese, but then I was informed by a professor that there’s a new clerkship position opening up in the middle district of Florida in the Tampa division. And after talking with Professor Adams, Professor Virelli, and Professor Boals and trying to get everybody’s advice I realized this was a phenomenal opportunity.

So I ended up meeting with a new, appointed Magistrate Judge Judge Adams in the Middle District and immediately we hit it off. She’s just incredible: she worked for DOJ [Department of Justice] as a prosecutor, she’s got a billion awards, she worked for Bradley [Arant Boult & Cummings, LLP] for a while, she’s young, energetic, and enthusiastic, and when she asked me to come clerk for her I knew that was what I wanted to do.


What extracurriculars have meant the most to you at Stetson?

One of my favorite parts of being at Stetson is all the things I get to do outside of class. I’ve been on Law Review, Business Law Review, Moot Court, Trial Team, Student Bar Association, Ambassadors, so all of those I’ve gotten to spend some time with. 

But I think without a doubt the ones that meant the most to me are the Advocacy Board, the Court and Trial team I just love the advocacy competitions. I love pairing with my teams, getting the time to work with other students, and working toward a common goal.

"The trial team is very much like the feeling of being on a sports team that I loved when I was in high school."

I miss that feeling of working together and knowing that somebody’s got your back.


What advice would you give to people deciding on law school?

You have to consider first of all if this is really something that you’re interested in, and understand that the law looks a lot different than you might expect when you first come in. Do some research, understand what your curriculum is going to look like, what your schedule is going to look like. And realize that this is going to be your career. You have to work really hard and you have to enjoy what you’re doing because otherwise you can get lured down an area of law that drains you more than fulfills you. Go in well informed and understanding that it’s going to be a challenge but it’s going to be the most rewarding thing that you’ve ever probably completed.


What’s your favorite thing about Stetson?

My favorite thing about Stetson has to be the people and the environment. I’ve met some of the most incredible people here. You just have such a variety of faculty members and their experiences are all so unique. They all come from different places, they all come from different backgrounds, they all have different specialties.

Say you’re taking a class with Professor Podgor, for example, who’s just the most incredibly well accomplished person in criminal law and international and white collar crime. And then you talk to Professor Virelli, who’s a leading scholar in administrative and constitutional law and whose life work is dedicated to talking about judicial recusal. And then you go and talk to someone like Professor Adams who helps with formulating new plans for how to draft the UCC [Uniform Commercial Code].

"I think what distinguishes Stetson is that all these professors are willing to help you. I’ve never had a professor that wouldn’t meet with me or wouldn’t make time to talk to me during finals or during class."

Just the ability to be able to talk to the professors like that and get such exposure to diverse experiences, that was huge for me and I think it was very formative in my time at Stetson.


Topics: Spotlight