From forensics to the federal defense clinic, Andrew Wendel’s legal journey involves unexpected turns and remarkable achievements
Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Andrew Wendel grew up in the small town of LeClaire, Iowa, where the legacy of the University of Iowa runs deep in his family. While Andrew’s path to law school unfolded unexpectedly, one thing has always remained certain – his love for the Hawkeyes.

Following his father’s footsteps, Andrew began his undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa in 2017. Little did he realize this initial step would set the stage for an unforeseen journey in law.

“The University of Iowa was always my number one choice, just because I've always lived here. Beyond that, a lot of my family went to Iowa. We’re big Hawkeye fans,” says Andrew. 

Andrew's entrance into the legal world wasn't a childhood dream but a gradual realization during his undergraduate years. Initially drawn to forensics, he pursued a degree in biology alongside criminology, law, and justice. However, his initial fascination with forensics took a turn.

“It wasn’t until halfway through my undergraduate degree when I decided I wanted to attend law school,” Andrew recalls. “I was spending all my time in the lab and realized I didn't like the monotony of doing the same test over and over. On the other hand, I still really liked the idea of working as a team and helping people.” 

Seeking guidance from a professor, the notion of law school surfaced. "Law had never crossed my mind before, so I just started to poke around to see what being a lawyer was like,” says Andrew.

During his research, Andrew stumbled across an undergraduate internship opportunity at Iowa Law’s Federal Defense Clinic. Led by Professor Alison Guernsey, students in the Federal Defense Clinic represent indigent individuals facing federal charges in the U.S. District Courts of Iowa. Sparking his interest, Andrew took a leap of faith and applied for the position. By the fall of 2020, he successfully landed the role, marking the beginning of his journey in law. 

“My time in the clinic as an undergraduate intern was invaluable,” Andrew says. “It’s what solidified my dreams of becoming a lawyer. I came out of that experience knowing I wanted to be a defense attorney. It was refreshing to find something with everything I wanted in a career.”

Fueled by the same familial ties and love for the Hawkeyes, Andrew started his legal career at Iowa Law in 2021, quickly navigating back to the Federal Defense Clinic. Now, as a 3L, he focuses on post-conviction cases, emphasizing matters linked to the First Step Act for compassionate release.

In the Clinic, Andrew and his peers have celebrated numerous achievements. Standing alongside fellow 3L Avery Epstein, the two delivered a compelling public comment at the Iowa Department of Corrections Board of Corrections. In collaboration with Isabelle Breitfelder, also a 3L, the pair skillfully represented a client in a sentencing hearing in the Southern District of Iowa.

Amidst the notable accomplishments of Andrew and his peers, the road to success has its challenges. Their work not only requires a profound understanding of procedural law but also a pragmatic approach to meeting the needs of individual clients. The key to their accomplishments? Andrew credits the power of collaboration.

"The aspect of Clinic I find most valuable is our ability to work together – students and professors alike,” says Andrew. “We're a small team, around 11 or 12 of us, each with different backgrounds and opinions. It's like a family where we discuss things and sometimes argue, but we always look out for each other. We're protecting not just our clients but also our group's reputation. Knowing we have each other’s back provides a sense of comfort that helps us focus on what’s most important in helping our clients.”


"In the Clinic, it's more than just mastering substantive law and trial procedures; students cultivate the essential legal practice skills. It's not just about learning tasks; it's about navigating uncharted legal territories.” - Andrew Wendel


After spending the past few years alongside Andrew in the Clinic, Professor Guernsey underscores Andrew's dedication to effective collaboration and acknowledges his self-discipline as a key driver of his success.

“Andrew is collaborative. He works well with his colleagues, pushing them to think deeply about the cases in which they are involved and offers his insights for contemplation and criticism,” says Professor Guernsey. “At the same time, he works hard and is dedicated to his clients. In several cases, we have encountered circumstances that require legal prowess and a lot of time and dedication. Andrew is self-directed, and I trust him to do what he needs to do, no matter the investment of time and energy it will take.”

In addition to his peers, Andrew acknowledges Professor Guernsey as a pivotal figure who has influenced his academic and professional journey, serving as both mentor and friend. He commends her for providing academic guidance and creating a supportive and enriching learning environment for students.

“Since my undergraduate years, Professor Guernsey has been an extraordinary mentor, a cherished friend, and a trusted colleague. She excels in building meaningful connections with students, and I've be

en fortunate to be a part of it,” Andrew says. “Her impact on my professional journey has been profound. From connecting me with employers to crafting letters of recommendation, she has played a pivotal role in nearly every step of my career.”

As Andrew nears the end of his law school journey, his focus has shifted towards appellate law. An internship at the Federal Public Defender in Seattle exposed him to the complexities of appellate work, seamlessly blending legal acumen with client counseling.

“This past summer, I had the incredible opportunity to intern at the Federal Public Defender in the Western District of Washington in Seattle. My focus was primarily on the appeals team, marking my first exposure to such intricate legal work. It proved to be a perfect blend of delving into compelling legal issues while helping clients,” says Andrew. “What intrigued me further was the opportunity to engage with cases and issues that resonated on a national scale. This aspect fascinated me during my internship and leaves me eager to continue exploring impactful work as I progress in my legal career."

Andrew says his internship experience and refined skills in the Clinic have prepared him for a successful career after graduation.

"In the Clinic, it's more than just mastering substantive law and trial procedures; students cultivate the essential legal practice skills. It's not just about learning tasks; it's about navigating uncharted legal territories,” Andrew says. “Developing these skills in the clinic allows for a smoother transition into the workforce, giving us the knowledge and capability to figure things out even in unfamiliar terrain.”

Undoubtedly, the Clinic has equipped Andrew with the essential skills needed for his future career. In addition, it has provided him with a distinct perspective on the challenges and opportunities within the legal system.

"Reflecting on my time at Iowa Law, the Clinic has profoundly shaped my thoughts, experiences, and opinions,” says Andrew. “It’s given me insights into cases many might shy away from, revealing two critical aspects. Firstly, it underscores the pressing need for assistance among those often overlooked. Secondly, it prompts a reflective commentary on our role as lawyers – questioning the why behind our chosen profession. While not every lawyer may engage in this work, for those of us in roles like criminal defense attorneys, it's an opportunity to contemplate and evaluate our position as advocates for systemic change."

Looking ahead after graduation, Andrew plans to clerk for the Iowa Supreme Court for Justice Matthew McDermott and later hopes to become a public defender in Iowa. 

Having witnessed Andrew's journey over the years, Professor Guernsey looks forward to the promising path ahead for him.

“As a clinical law student, Andrew has shown incredible devotion to his clients and their cases, and he has approached legal practice with diligence, intellect, and creativity. Now that he will spend his time post-graduation working in the public interest, it gives me great hope in the emerging generation of law students,” says Professor Guernsey.

Andrew advises incoming students to lean into their passions and interests, even if they don't align with conventional paths.

“You'll find things you don't like in law school, whether a class or a topic, but you'll find things you love. Sometimes, we don’t follow our interests in law school because they’re unlike everyone else's. I would say embrace your passions, even if they diverge from conventional paths, and find a balance that makes your law school experience both academically enriching and personally fulfilling.”