A 2009 graduate of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law who has studied abroad in Singapore and New Zealand, interned for a Congressman, worked at two large law firms, and externed for federal lawyers and a judge will receive the law school's top honor at its convocation on Friday, May 15.
Brian E. Barner is the recipient of the John S. Armstrong Award, which was established by the Armstrong family to honor the Arizona legislator who introduced the bill that established Arizona's first institution of higher learning, the Tempe Normal School. The faculty chose Barner, a Phoenix native, based on his academic performance and contributions to the College of Law.
Barner, who earned an undergraduate degree in Government, magna cum laude, from Georgetown University, where he had the highest grades among his classmates in chemistry, marine biology, ecology and logic, also was number one in his law-school class of 158 students.
While in law school, his potential, contributions and academic accomplishments earned him scholarships totaling over $55,500 from, among others, Professor Michael Berch and Arizona Supreme Court Vice Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch, the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, and the College of Law's adjunct faculty.
And yet Barner, an Eagle Scout and avid reader of The Economist who has skied, sailed and scuba dived in mountain ranges and waters around the world, and visited 30 countries on five continents, is as modest as he is smart.
"Brian is one of a kind," said Michael Berch, the Alan A. Matheson Professor of Law and one of Barner's mentors. "He can do most anything - and do it well. His interests are eclectic, sports, academics, arts, he is a person of inner faith, and his goodness exudes. I have no doubt that Brian will make an excellent lawyer because he understands complex legal issues, attends to details and is concerned about justice and people.
"Brian also is unassuming," Berch continued. "He does not posture, and he does not brag. And upon first meeting, he may not have the spark that will ignite everyone. But that is their problem, not his."
Barner has brainy genes. His mother, Carol, achieved perfect scores on the math portions of the SAT and GRE, was a National Merit Scholar, has master's degrees in computer science and bioinformatics, and is a professor of computer science and math at Glendale Community College. She taught him to play chess in grade school and still beats him every time (but he has the upper hand in Rummikub and Pinochle).
His dad, Mark, was a Navy submarine officer, has an MBA and a master's degree in chemistry education and teaches advanced placement chemistry and physics at Centennial High in Peoria, where his son was valedictorian of the Class of 2000.
"My family prizes education," the younger Barner said with a grin.
At Georgetown, where he received a Navy ROTC scholarship, Barner studied abroad at the University of Auckland, learning about Asia-Pacific and U.S.-New Zealand international relations. After graduation, he worked for nearly two years as a paralegal for a large firm in Washington, D.C., "billing and working lawyer-type hours."
With a genetic gift for logic, Barner decided to go to law school and chose the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law for its Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology. And because of his experience at the law firm, Barner's first year of law school was not the culture and academic shock that it is for many students.
"I had a pretty analytical mindset already, and I'd been working hard, so I just kept that pace," he said.
Barner said he most benefited from courses with and the mentorship of Berch, and Professors Adam Chodorow, Joe Feller, Orde Kittrie, Bradley Forst, and Aaron Fellmeth. A legal exchange program last spring at the National University of Singapore was a chance to continue expanding his horizons. There, he studied international banking, projects and shipping, maritime security, and Asian land law - in addition to diving in Thailand and Indonesia, and traveling the Pacific Rim from Korea to Western Australia.
Barner also really enjoyed his externship with U.S. District Court Judge Neil V. Wake this spring, because he was treated more like a law clerk than a law student.
"I'd lost some of my faith in litigation after a lot of things I'd seen, but Judge Wake is really brilliant and also honest and has a good sense of humor. He helped nurse my confidence in the legal system back to life," Barner said. "No matter what tactics attorneys try, he can see through them like a laser and arrive at the right outcome."
Following graduation, Barner will spend the summer with friends in Seattle, then move to Boise, where he will clerk for Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Eismann. "I'm looking forward to being mentored by a person who is at the pinnacle of his profession, was a war hero in Vietnam, and has rock-solid Christian ethics." He is also looking forward to contributing to a system where legal rules that are best for society are chosen.
"That's what justice is supposed to be about," Barner said.
Beyond that, he's interested in continuing his education through another clerkship, a top MBA program, or an L.L.M. in international taxation. He could see himself as a tax partner in Zurich, near where his parents plan to retire in Bavaria, a projects attorney in Singapore, or an in-house counsel for a company specializing in natural resources.
Barner plans to take the California bar exam this summer, "because it's useful for international law, and people there have fun while working hard."