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Alyssa Dowse featured in article “One of the Army’s First Female Combat Engineers is a Big Law Lawyer”

Bloomberg Law

Being a lawyer can be stressful, but maybe not quite as stressful as measuring out appropriate amounts of C-4 explosives or cutting concertina wire so an infantry unit can advance in a combat zone.

Alyssa Dowse is the rare person who could compare the two. During the week, Dowse is an attorney in the Milwaukee office of Quarles & Brady. On occasional weekends she’s a combat engineer with the U.S. Army Reserve, 469th Engineer Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

After a lifetime of flirting with joining the military, Dowse, 30, enlisted last November. She finished up her training to become a combat engineer in May.

What, exactly, is a “combat engineer”? Dowse said the job has three components: mobility (keeping the infantry moving, by building bridges or clearing roads, for example), counter-mobility (making it hard for enemy forces to move by, say, planting mines or building wire fences), and survivability (being proficient with weapons, or being able to defend a base).

“We do things like flanking an enemy, if you’re coming under direct fire,” Dowse said. “We also do room clearance and building breaching: kind of like what you see if you’re watching a SWAT team, busting in a door and clearing a house.”

Dowse’s position just opened up to females last year and she guesses she’s in the first 50 women ever to do the job.

A graduate of Marquette University Law School, Dowse practices in Quarles & Brady’s employee benefits and executive compensation group. We spoke with her by phone on Thursday about her decision to join the Army Reserve, and what it’s meant for her career as a lawyer.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

Big Law Business: What does it mean to you to be one of the Army’s first female combat engineers?

Dowse: It’s really exciting. I knew I would be one of the first, but I didn’t realize how new it was when I joined. I think I’m probably within the first 50 females to become a combat engineer.

There are obviously growing pains with that. In my unit up in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, I’m the only female combat engineer, so there are interesting aspects of working with a group of male soldiers who’ve never worked with females other than in support roles. It’s kind of similar to what you deal with as a female attorney at times in a previously male-dominated legal profession.

I think the Army’s main goal is that we’re not treated as females or males. We’re all soldiers.

Big Law Business: What have been your craziest or most memorable experiences so far?

Dowse: Basic training was a very memorable experience. In some ways it’s very much like the movies, where somebody is always yelling at you. There’s always a prospect of having to do some type of corrective training, like pushups.

Some of the really cool things we’ve done dealt with explosives, which I know sounds really weird. I would never have thought that explosives were interesting, or in anyway not scary, prior to becoming a combat engineer. But it’s been kind of fun to learn how to calculate how much C-4 you need for something, and the minimum distance away you need to be to be safe, and then actually watching the explosives do what you want them to do: blow a hole in the ground, take down a tree, blow off a door.

It’s kind of similar to what you deal with as a female attorney at times in a previously male-dominated legal profession.

Big Law Business: Why’d you want to join the military?

Dowse: I was a high school junior when 9/11 happened. I was driving to a college class that I was taking, and I heard about it on the radio and pulled over on the side of the road.

After that happened, I don’t know if it was tied to that, or maybe I would’ve always been this way, but I always had this patriotic nudge every time I heard the national anthem, or when I saw people in service uniforms I would think, “I wish I could do that.” But I never did.

I talked to a recruiter, but decided to go to college, and then I thought about ROTC, but just said, “Well, I’m on this track, so let’s finish college and then go from there.” Then I talked to JAG recruiters in law school, but I got an offer from a law firm and decided I would go that route. It seemed like there was always something else that came up: the way people thought my life should go, the normal thing to do.

In some ways it’s very much like the movies, where somebody is always yelling at you.

I was on business trip in June of 2015, and I saw a bunch of people in the airport in uniform, and I don’t know why, I just thought, “I always wanted to do that, I should do it.” So I got out my cell phone and filled out a contact form online with the National Guard.

It’s a random and weird route that brought me to this point. The bottom line is I didn’t want to regret it. I’m almost too old to join. I just kept thinking in June, “If I don’t join soon, I’m not going to be able to. Do I want to look back at my life and think this was something I always wanted to do but didn’t?”

Big Law Business: How does your military experience affect your legal career?

Dowse: You have to be passionate about things other than the law to be a well-rounded person. Now I have this thing I’m very passionate about that I’ve been able to really challenge myself to do, so I think that makes me a better lawyer to have done something so incredibly challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally, and to have succeeded at it.

It seemed like there was always something else that came up: the way people thought my life should go, the normal thing to do.

I think I did so much better than I ever thought I would, in training as a 30-year-old female lawyer who sits at a desk all the time.

More specifically, I can manage stress better than I ever could before. They try to stress you to the point of breaking, so I think that helps with the normal stress of being a lawyer. I think it also puts priorities into perspective as a lawyer. A lot of lawyers get kind of weighed down by little things that don’t matter sometimes. We like to argue, we like to find the negative in everything — that’s what lawyers do.

I think the Army perspective on life and on missions and projects helps me put what really matters into perspective a lot better, whether it be on client’s case, or in my career, or in my life.

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