The Accidental Lawyer

The following is a bit of folklore regarding my father. The basic outlines are correct, though there is likely a little bit of embellishment—this story takes place before my actual memory begins. Of course, the real truth is in a characterization of who may father was: tenacious, brilliant, and hard-headed.

One of the interesting facts about my father is that he accidentally acquired a juris doctorate.

I can imagine the confusion. How does one accidentally acquire a gradate degree? One does not simply forget to tie one’s shoes in the morning, then trip and fall into a set of doctoral robes. One must go to school for several years. Take classes. Write papers. Sit for exams. This requires effort and time and will. One does not simply acquire a JD, let alone by accident.

My father was something of Renaissance man. He had a lot of diverse interests, and typically found ways to pursue them. After completing his bachelors degree (in geology, I think), he enrolled in a PhD program in cultural anthropology at University of Arizona. While completing his courswork, he noticed a course on Indian law in the catalog, and decided that it would be fun to take the class. So, he tried to enroll.

This is when he hit the first roadblock. You see, the course was offered through the law school at U of A, and, it seemed, one needed to be enrolled in the law school in order to take the class. A lot of people would have said “Whelp, that’s that!”, and moved along. Not my father. He wanted to take that class.

My father took (and crushed) the LSAT, applied for admission into the U of A law school, and was accepted. Note, just for the record, that he was also still in the doctoral program over in the anthropology department. Yet, somehow, he found the time to apply for law school.

Having successfully applied for admission into the law school, he returned to the registrar’s office. “Good morning,” one might imagine him saying, “I would like to enroll in this course on Indian law, please.”

“But no, that isn’t possible,” comes the reply “You see, Indian law is a class for third year law students, and you are but a lowly first year.”

Now, if it were me, and I were told that I would have to sit through two-and-a-half years of law school just to take one class—while I’m working on my PhD!—I would probably consider my tuition deposit a sunk cost, go back to my home department, and finish the PhD. Indian law might be fun, but I can get the book.

Not my father. My father went to law school. Not only that, he did quite well in the program. My understanding (somewhat reinforced from conversations with my brother, who also earned a JD from U of A, though 30+ years later) is that U of A law school is quite competitive. Grade’s are determined relative to one’s rank in a class (i.e. there are only a certain number of As which are given out in any given course, so to get one of them, you have to be better than everyone else), and so there is a lot of incentive to work only in a very small cabal and to work against the interests of others.

Somehow, in this environment, my father did quite well—not only did he eventually earn a JD (and, presumably, take that class in Indian law), he ended up at the top of his class (maybe not number one? but definitely in the top three? I’m gonna say top three. Like I said, parts of this story may be apocryphal). After finishing his JD and PhD, and finding no work in academia, he went into politics (in a minor way), and served as the legal advisor to the House Democrats in Arizona for a while before eventually taking a tenure track position where he was hired specifically for his background in both anthropology and the law.

But that’s a story for another time.

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