Law as a second career, and the value of life experience
By Steven P. Aggergaard
Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has inspired plenty of young people to pursue lives in the law.
I was not among them.
Don’t get me wrong, both Atticus and “Mockingbird” influenced my career aspirations. But they made me want to be a writer and journalist, not a lawyer.
What is a confession like this doing in an alumni magazine like this, in a space that’s been reserved for insights and inspirations about lives in the law?
Because for me, and for so many Mitchell Hamline alumni, our school has been a place where lives outside the law not only are tolerated, they are treasured, in ways that benefit our profession, clients, and communities.
My life in the law began when in 2000 I was 33 and was seeking to complement my career, not necessarily change it. I also was more than a little curious. William Mitchell College of Law was seven blocks from home, and the block-long campus intrigued me much like Boo Radley’s house intrigued Scout, the narrator in “Mockingbird.”
The Mitchell students whom I encountered on Summit Avenue triggered my journalist’s instincts too. They sure carried a lot of books and on many days seemed curiously preoccupied. I grew interested in who these people were, what they were doing, where, and why.
My problem was when. I worked 4 p.m. to midnight as a St. Paul Pioneer Press news editor and had debt from journalism school, so if I attended law school it was going to be during the day and part time.
Few cities have schools that will accommodate such students, but St. Paul had two. I was fortunate to be accepted into part-time day programs at both William Mitchell and Hamline University School of Law. I chose the former largely because I could walk to school and because classes began at 9 a.m. instead of 8.
Despite the extra hour of sleep, I was pushed to the limit. Self-doubt often eclipsed self-confidence as I struggled to balance school, work, and life. I became one who was weighted down by books and curiously preoccupied by the possibility of being called on in Civil Procedure.
That first year my younger classmates invigorated me, and I drew inspiration from colleagues who, like me, maintained careers outside of school, some of which (such as working overnight in a psych ward) were more demanding and interesting than mine. And while I learned about personal jurisdiction, “IRAC,” and the statute of frauds, I also learned I could be and wanted to be a practicing attorney.
I was drawn to Law Review, judicial clerkships, and litigation, all comfort zones for a journalist. I also was comfortable operating under a code of ethics. Lawyers and journalists largely self-govern their professions and follow Atticus Finch’s model of trying to do what’s right even when doing so is unpopular.
Now, after a dozen years as a litigator, I realize the most important skills I brought to law school and then litigation have nothing to do with journalism. They come from life experiences such as negotiating return of a damage deposit, selling a house, buying two, having interests outside the law, maintaining non-lawyer friends, gaining new ones, and losing parents.
As a Mitchell Hamline grad, I am not alone. As graduates of a school that values lives away from the law, we are well-armed to help clients solve problems as efficiently as possible. What we do away from the law, with whom, and even what we read ultimately have the most impact.
I do not read my Civil Procedure textbook anymore. I recycled it several years ago. But I still have my copy of “Mockingbird” from when I was 14, and as a lawyer-journalist I continue to be inspired by the novel and Scout’s narrative in Chapter 7 in particular.
“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts,” she said.
So true, Atticus. So true.
Steven P. Aggergaard ’04 (WMCL) has litigated at Bassford Remele PA and the former Rider Bennett LLP, was a law clerk for Hon. Paul A. Magnuson ’63 (WMCL) and Hon. Sam Hanson ’65 (WMCL), and teaches journalism at Augsburg College, all in Minneapolis. He and his wife live in St. Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood.
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We’d like to use this space to share reflections from alumni about their personal experiences with the profession of law. If you have a story you’d like to submit for “A Life in the Law,” please send about 700 words to firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you.