First Lieutenant Eric S. Vernsten is a Judge Advocate for the Illinois Army National Guard, as well as a Prosecutor in Northwest Illinois and Comedy Podcast host.
Tell us a little bit about your life and work.
All three of my roles are so fulfilling and fun, none actually qualify as jobs! As an Army Lawyer, I can be helping a soldier with an estate planning document one day, then representing the government at a separation board the next day. It would be hard to be Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men every day, so it is nice to mix things up. Being a prosecutor allows me to represent the state I love so much, Illinois, and help communities with a balance of fighting crime while also supporting a fair legal system for all. Finally, I get to use my improv comedy and stand-up comedy skills with my podcast, Laugh and Learn with Vern. I get to hang out with creative entrepreneurs and comedians from around the world. Life is truly wonderful.
What is your favorite part about your current position? How did you get to where you are now?
Being a lawyer and podcast host allows me to do the thing I love most: listen! (Sorry, my girlfriend wrote that.) I love to speak, especially off the cuff. You have to be prepared and sharp when speaking in court, and it can be very humbling to have a Judge or Army Officer staring at you at a time when a person’s freedom is on the line. Being a podcast host is very similar to being a lawyer, but with much more varied topics. You have to be prepared, you have to listen, and you have to be quick on your feet to respond and direct the conversation to a fun place for everyone involved, especially your guest!
After I graduated with my B.A. in history, I moved to Austin, Texas for my dream sales job in professional sports. Unfortunately, I stunk! After some soul searching, I decided to go to law school and never looked back. I got my JD and MBA from the Southern Illinois University School of Law and College of Business. My first job was as a Financial Advisor at Ayco, a Goldman Sachs Company. It was a very intense environment that allowed me to receive an unofficial PhD in personal finance and taxation. Although I worked with wonderful clients and co-workers, I knew something was missing. I left for a smaller firm with a different investment philosophy called Kovitz; I also began doing volunteer legal work. The more legal work I did, the more I knew I had to become a full-time lawyer! I saw an opportunity to become a lawyer and serve my country with the Illinois Army National Guard, so I took the leap. During this time, I honed my public speaking skills at downtown Chicago Toastmasters Clubs and by doing standup and improv comedy. While going through Army training, I applied for prosecutor jobs and found a very wonderful opportunity and jumped at it. Eventually I realized the skills I built starting all the way back in college led me to this point, so I created a podcast that interviews others that have built successful careers through using their diverse skill sets. There is also a comedy aspect to it, because everyone loves to laugh.
What did you most enjoy about being a history major at the University of Illinois?
My classmates were kindred spirits. I will never forget how many times we would run into each other in the library twelve hours before a paper was due, spend the next hour talking, then wish each other goodbye as we sprinted away to actually do some work. We would debate topics from class, or laugh about one of our professors going on an animated rant or sixteen.
What was the best class you took in the history department and why?
The History of Terrorism with John Lynn. Professor Lynn was also my convocation speaker and he wrote me a letter of recommendation for law school, so I am a bit biased towards him. However, the lessons from that class have always stuck with me. I took that class in 2008, so the 9/11 terrorism attacks were very fresh in mind. Professor Lynn, as well as many other history professors, had a way of talking to you and being authentic. They seemed to know and care so much, it was exciting! Professor Lynn had a special way of connecting with students; he is a national treasure.
What aspects of your education as a history student have been the most beneficial to you?
I learned humility with each paper I thought was good, only for it to come back after a TA review covered in red like it hung out with Jack Nicholson at The Shining hotel. You are only as good as your last appearance, speech, or paper.
I learned to do my homework! Whether researching the law or a guest, the difference between average and great is very thin. Doing the work is what gets you an A on a paper and in life.
I also learned to be myself and trust my voice. I can only be the best writer that I can be; I can’t be John Lynn or Hemingway, especially because Hemingway was a fiction writer. You can only be the best you and trust that your voice and opinions are good enough.
What advice would you give to current history majors about the professional realm?
Build connections with your fellow classmates! They are awesome, and funny, and creative. Cherish those long nights and talks together. You never know where your friends will end up in life, and that person you are discussing 19th century Russian History with could end up being the public defender to your prosecutor.
Challenge assumptions. History is the story of those who looked at their respective current state of events and said, you know what? It’s time for a change. Your opinion, your thoughts, your drive and ambition matter. Stand your ground and be willing to state your opinion and why you believe it so! As I learned from a podcast guest as well as in my own life, if you respect yourself, others will respect you.
Last but not least: have FUN! Life is short and you are in the best program in the best college at the best university in the world! Maybe even the best in the galaxy, who knows? Laugh with your classmates, work hard to be the only person you know who has not asked for an extension, and spend all day pondering how the French military went from so good to so incompent so quickly. As a famous Sausage King of Chicago once said, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Congratulations on being an awesome person learning an awesome skill set at the best place ever.