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Overcoming Impossible Odds, Jamel Oeser-Sweat ’01 Finds His Calling in the Law

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Jamel Oeser-Sweat describes his 10-year-old self as “a homeless fugitive.” Plagued by mental illness, his mother evaded child welfare workers by taking him and his brothers from their home and into the shelter system. They ended up in a midtown Manhattan welfare hotel that, Oeser-Sweat says, “warehoused some of the worst types of people that 1980’s New York City had to offer.” The family eventually moved to public housing, but when his mother’s health problems recurred, Oeser-Sweat was uprooted again and placed in a group home. “I was in kiddie prison,” he recalls.

Life took an unexpected turn for the better when the teenage Oeser-Sweat enrolled in a biotechnology class at Mt. Sinai Hospital. He was introduced to Dr. Edward J. Bottone, an infectious disease specialist, who took Oeser-Sweat under his wing and into the lab to conduct research in microbiology. “Dr. Bottone saw a lot of himself in me,” says Oeser-Sweat. “I spent summers and my school semesters working with him, and I was fortunate to be on a team that discovered a new route of disease transmission through loofah sponges.”

Oeser-Sweat’s research earned him a 10th place finish as a finalist in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search (now the Regeneron Science Talent Search). His story of triumph over adversity made him a media darling, and he found himself on the front page of the New York Times and featured in television news shows. “One day I was invisible, and the next I was sneaking into school to avoid cameras,” Oeser-Sweat shares. “It was very strange and overwhelming.”

While developing as a scientist, Oeser-Sweat also nurtured an interest in the law. In his senior year of high school, he won the New York State Bar Association’s moot court competition with the highest score in the state. And he continued to study law as an undergraduate at NYU, which he attended on a full scholarship. “I loved my politics classes,” says Oeser-Sweat. “I also loved my biology classes. But I really wanted to make a change in the world. I had no idea what that meant yet, but I knew law school was the place I was going to make it happen.”

St. John’s Law was a natural fit for Oeser-Sweat. “Of all of the law schools I got into, it was the only place I felt at home,” he says. “And the decision to go there was one of the most important decisions of my life.” In addition to being active in the Student Bar Association and in the Black Law Student Association, during law school Oeser-Sweat took the patent bar and co-authored a book on DNA and litigation that includes a foreword by Dr. James D. Watson, the famed co-discoverer of the double helix. “My St. John’s Law classmates and professors were very supportive throughout,” says Oeser-Sweat.

When he graduated from St. John’s, Oeser Sweat worked in private law firms before going out on his own. His practice focuses on criminal casework, civil litigation, small business and intellectual property matters, and matrimonial law. He also mentors young attorneys and gives back to his community through pro bono service.

Reflecting on how his past informs his present vocation as a lawyer, Oeser-Sweat shares: “Being homeless and poor taught me to appreciate the simple things. I’m often surprised when people think of it as a bad experience. It made me strong, and it happened early enough that I was able to get the benefits of valuable lessons about life and people. It also gives me a unique reason for people to empathize with me. They know I am of the people. That’s a real strength. There’s a credibility and sense of trust that comes from overcoming impossible odds. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had that experience.”