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A less-traveled path to the law

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by Joseph Gresser

BARTON — About 34,000 people graduate from law school in the U.S. each year.  Presumably almost all then take the notoriously difficult bar examination, the gateway to a license to practice law.

In almost every state a law degree is a necessity for anyone hoping to be a lawyer.  That wasn’t always the case, in earlier days, a person who wished to practice law could essentially become an apprentice and work in a lawyer’s office for a period of years to gain experience and knowledge of the profession.

Four states, California, Virginia, Washington, and Vermont, still allow a person to become a lawyer by the traditional route.  In fact, recently retired Vermont Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund followed that path, while working as a paralegal in the Vermont Attorney General’s office.

Jennifer Hersey Cleveland, who lives in Barton with her husband, Kirk, also took the road less traveled on her way to a law license.

A native of Aroostook County, Maine, known there simply as The County, Ms. Cleveland studied drama in college, before turning her attention to journalism.  Graduating from the University of Maine in Orono, with a degree in communications, Ms. Cleveland started prospecting for a newspaper job.

“I wanted to live in a rural area and there were three newspapers in the Northeast Kingdom,” she said in a recent interview.  She said she had an interview with Ellie Dixon, at the time the editor of the Caledonia Record.

She actually landed at the Chronicle, where this reporter found her ensconced at the neighboring desk when he first arrived.  Ms. Cleveland was assistant editor.

After working for ten years at the Chronicle, she wrote for the other two Kingdom papers for a while.  She spent most of her time at the Caledonian Record seated in the second-floor courtroom of the Lee Emerson Courthouse covering the doings in Orleans County Superior Court.

Reporting trials gives a person something of a feel for the law, Ms. Cleveland said, but she decided she wanted to be more than a passive observer.

“It piqued my interest,” she said.  “I wanted to participate in the contest.”

After looking into ways she might enter the fray, Ms. Cleveland, in 2015, got a job as a law clerk in the offices of Orleans County Public Defender Jill Jourdan.

When Ms. Jourdan reorganized her office and eliminated Ms. Cleveland’s position, she walked up the street to the county courthouse and got a job as a docket clerk in Family Court.

That’s where she ran into St. Johnsbury lawyer David Sleigh, whom she knew from her days as a reporter.

He had a opening for a case manager and Ms. Cleveland jumped at the chance to get back on the road to practicing law.

“Most of what I learned came from tasks I was assigned to do,” Ms. Cleveland said.  Those included such things as doing legal research and drafting motions.

Her day-to-day work gave her an increasing knowledge of procedure and criminal law, but the passing the bar examination calls for the kind of abstract understanding of legal theory that is not easily extracted from practical work.

Graduates of law school often say they have to learn how to be actual lawyers on the job.

Ms. Cleveland said she looked around to see what was included in law school syllabi.  One professor posted the entire curriculum for first year law online for anyone to use, she said.

While carrying on her day-to-day legal work, Ms. Cleveland plugged away at her studies.

After four years of work and study, she was ready to take the bar exam.

She said the portion of the exam that focused on the kind of work she had been doing for Mr. Sleigh was relatively simple, but the parts that tested an applicant’s knowledge of legal theory were more of a challenge.

“It’s not like most multiple choice tests, where you eliminate the two obviously wrong answer and have to choose between the two remaining ones,” she said.  Instead the exam focuses on those subtleties of law she had not experienced directly.

Nevertheless, she passed, and passed with flying colors.

Ms. Cleveland said every state can set the score needed for a lawyer to practice it its territory.  Alaska, she said, requires the highest score.

“I could practice in Alaska,” she said modestly.

After passing the bar an aspiring lawyer has to take and pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, designed to make sure a person has a firm grasp on the ethical requirements of the legal profession.

Only after she passed it did Ms. Cleveland hit a roadblock.

Before she could be admitted to the bar, she had to be vetted by the states Judicial Conduct Board, an investigation that required Ms. Cleveland to list every address at which she ever received mail, every job she ever held, and a ton of other information.

What complicated matters for her was that she moved frequently while in college, finding a new place to live every semester.

“I had 50 addresses,” she said.

Every one of those addresses and every one of her former employers had to contacted to make sure her behavior was of the caliber expected of lawyers.

Unfortunately, some of the places she once worked are now out of business.

Whether because she is older than the usual law school graduate, or because of COVID, the investigation took forever, Ms. Cleveland said.

She was finally admitted to the bar on March 17 and sworn in on March 29.

Even that proved somewhat fraught.  A lawyer must take the oath in the county in which she lives, but the Lee Emerson Courthouse in Newport has been mostly closed to the public throughout the pandemic.

After some negotiation, Ms. Cleveland, her mother and a couple of friends was able to gain access to the second floor courtroom.

Ms. Cleveland had hoped to take the oath from Judge Robert Bent, with whom she has formed a friendship, but he retired before she was admitted.  Instead she stood and raised her right hand before Judge Lisa Warren.

That had its own special aspect.  Judge Warren, too, followed the same path as Ms. Cleveland on her journey to the bench.

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