Our New Orleans dining room post Hurricane Katrina

Law School and Other Experiments

Having a law degree seemed to be a common credential for my dream job, owning an alternative newsweekly like The Village Voice. And after I left my job at a subsidiary of Tribune, New Mass Media, because newspapers were losing revenue faster than water could run through a sieve, law school seemed like an even better idea.

I had been divorced. I had been in minor car accidents. And even with my small brushes with the law, lawyers seemed to have a secret store of magical knowledge that I thought could protect me from future harm.

I took the LSATs, and my scores combined with my “non-traditional student” (older) status afforded me a small academic scholarship.

I started at Quinnipiac in Hamden, CT, and then we moved and I transferred to what was then called Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans, LA.

It turns out that my English major brain was all wrong for law school. In law school you read cases just to find the nugget or “holding” in the case that will then define how future cases are decided. It was a matter of learning rules and applying them. Much as one does with foreign languages or math, two things I’m barely capable of managing.

Instead, I loved to read cases for the drama. By the time a case hits the appellate court, it’s because someone has done something that’s generally extremely interesting and often bizarre. I forgot the holdings and instead pondered the characters and what had put them in the position that had brought them into court.

There were some classes I loved, Southern poverty law, legal ethics, and most gratifyingly, clinic, where I was given a Louisiana Rule XX bar card, meaning I could defend people in court under the supervision of a licensed lawyer.

Sometimes on behalf of clinic or when volunteering for the Orleans Indigent Defender Program, I found myself in court every free moment. I loved it. I was waved through the metal detector like a real lawyer and knew how to work the system to get police reports I needed, get copies made, etc. And when I was volunteering for the Orleans Indigent Defender Program, things being a bit slack, that supervising lawyer was not always in the room.

Suddenly, I had clients, largely male, indigent, people of color who had violated minor (in my mind) drug laws. When I went to public housing projects in New Orleans and tried unsuccessfully to interview witnesses, my professor insisted that a male law student from New Orleans accompany me.

I negotiated plea deals with assistant district attorneys. I second chaired a few cases as well, but found speaking in court to be a terrifying responsibility. Since forty percent of my clients were illiterate, I spent a great deal of time explaining what would happen to their case if they took a plea bargain and what might happen if they went to court. Although I made sure everyone knew that they had the right to go to trial, it seemed so risky to me that I talked a lot of people into taking a plea bargain, hoping it was in their best interests.

I loved being a junior public defender so much; I decided to change the path of my studies from common law, practiced in every state except Louisiana, to civil law, based in the Napoleonic code, hoping to become a real public defender in New Orleans.

The August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The home where I lived with my husband, Eric, and two large golden retrievers was destroyed when a levee broke. The house took on eight feet of water. The water in the pool I had designed in the back yard turned black. My car, carefully parked away from trees, was also destroyed.

Fortunately, Eric was a publisher in Lafayette, and we were able to evacuate there with the dogs. We fled to a hotel in Lafayette right before the storm. Then we moved to a small garage apartment owned by one of my Eric’s advertising contacts. She used to introduce us as “her refugees.” It was horrible.

Loyola closed for the semester and attempted to bring some new first year and other students to Houston, TX for the fall semester. They told the rest of us to let them know what we were doing. I stared at the computer for days, following the news like a zombie and occasionally seeing my neighborhood, where only rooftops poked out from under the water. A friend from my undergraduate days at Reed College sent me instructions to go enroll at the University of Louisiana School of Law in Baton Rouge, LA for the semester.

The University of Louisiana was great. They were able to lay hands on my tuition, working with Loyola, and let me enroll in classes. I think they even gave me free books. When I was accepted, I found a professor willing to drive me from where we were staying in Lafayette to Baton Rouge on days I had class.

My husband was still working in Lafayette but we found about the only house to buy in Baton Rouge and bought it, evenly situated between Lafayette and New Orleans, where I was hoping to return. There were no rentals because so many people were displaced.

I was much too overwhelmed to continue with my plan to switch to civil law and instead tried to graduate as fast as I could so we could leave the area. Besides my LSU classes, I got credit for clerking for the Federal Public Defender in Baton Rouge, LA, and for taking another course online.

We drove to New Orleans with my husband’s press pass and a work crew and managed to strip the first floor of our house down to the studs and salvage some things from the second floor, allowing us to sell it to a developer.

Loyola eventually reopened and I was making an exhausting commute from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. I graduated, barely in the top half of my class. I hadn’t studied enough civil law to bother to sit for the Louisiana bar exam. Almost none of my references from my work as a volunteer in the Orleans Indigent Defender Program could be found. People were disbursed and their phones were disconnected permanently.

Eric was offered a “to good to be true” publishing job in Mobile Alabama. I thought I was much too liberal and Jewish to like it there. I was right. During the brief period we lived there we got invited to a segregated ball by Eric’s boss. I guess its name, “The White Ball” should have clued me in. I dragged him out as soon as I realized what it was.

I stopped leaving the house except for emergencies and half-heartedly started studying for the Alabama bar. Eric’s boss had introduced me to the District Attorney and I was all but promised a job as an assistant district attorney, except that I think we all knew I had no interest in prosecuting anyone.

I started selling advertising again on the side to make some money.

Eric lost that job after his supervisor found his (liberal) columns online from his last publishing job. Almost simultaneously, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

Eric is from Newton, Massachusetts, and when his doctor in Alabama counseled him, he very nicely suggested that Eric should get treated laparoscopically in Boston, rather than in Mobile.

We packed up and moved to Newton. I made a slightly more energetic attempt to learn Massachusetts law and passed the Massachusetts half of the bar, failing the Multistate Bar Examination. The two-day examination was one of the worst experiences of my life, and not really one I thought worth repeating. By that time I was in my late thirties, had no local legal contacts or references, and didn’t think I could get a job I would like as a lawyer.

Newton, MA just didn’t have a need for someone to help hundreds of indigent people get a fair trial, as far as I could see. I met with the director of the criminal law clinic at Boston College and he suggested that I become a probation officer.

Instead I went back to work doing almost exactly what I had done before law school, but with less money and prestige. I became an account executive at Lawyer’s Weekly newspaper and went through several other media sales jobs before I landed on one I really enjoy, selling software and recruitment advertising for Monster Worldwide.

So I guess the million-dollar question is, was going to law school worth it? I know much more about the law, politics, and critical thinking. My experiences and the people I met in clinic and volunteering for the Orleans Indigent Defender Program was transformative. I now owe less than 5K on my student loan and expect to pay it off this year.

Career-wise, it was a small divergence from my path in media. Despite the bruises to my ego from failing to launch, the experience on the whole was worthwhile and has made me focus on and appreciate my current career trajectory even more.

Jessica L. Benjamin writes about workplace culture, leadership, academia, tech & politics. Reed English BA, Loyola JD.