CHARLESTON -- It was nice to get back to work this summer.
Following the ups and downs of my first year at the West Virginia University College of Law, I spent the last several weeks as a summer law clerk for Bell & Bands in Charleston. After a year of running up student loan debt, it was gratifying to earn a paycheck again. Better still, I was getting paid to learn, and learning things beyond the course material I'd spent so much time with over the past year.
Unlike many of my classmates, I entered law school in pursuit of a second career. I'd spent almost 11 years at the Charleston Daily Mail as both a reporter and later as a copy editor.
Although I'd given law school some consideration over the years, I was pretty settled on staying at the newspaper. Inertia can be difficult to overcome. It took the sale of the Daily Mail, the departure of a great many co-workers, and a lot of sleepless nights worrying about my future to finally convince me to take the plunge.
Law school is a trying experience under any circumstances, but going into it more than a decade after earning my journalism degree made it seem particularly daunting. I had to re-learn some old study habits and acquire all of the new ones that a legal education requires.
While I was back home in Charleston over Christmas Break, Harry Bell offered me a summer position. At the time, I was still shellshocked from my first round of finals and was awaiting Fall Semester grades with a sick sense of dread. Although it turns out that I did very well, no one could have convinced me of that at the time.
Thankfully, Mr. Bell had more confidence in me than I did.
I spent a great deal of the summer helping with the firm's nursing home litigation. Although I also assisted with matters involving consumer fraud as well as with contractual, employment, and property disputes, it was the work on the nursing home cases that was the most compelling.
I thought I'd developed a pretty tough skin during my newspaper days. I've written about people dying in lots of unpleasant ways. Still, I wasn't prepared for some of the things I saw in those nursing home case files. One resident had developed bed sores so extensive that they made embalming difficult. Another resident died after facility officials delayed hospital treatment because of concerns that it would complicate their billing process.
It took a conscious effort to not go home angry on days that I'd worked on the nursing home cases. It's infuriating to read about a resident who has died because someone in authority decided that accounting decisions should carry more weight than medical decisions. It's heartbreaking to read a resident's medical chronology and see their condition worsen entry by entry, knowing all the while that the last of those entries will note their death.
But assisting with these cases was rewarding, and in an unexpected way.
As a journalist, chronicling the misfortunes of others is all in a day's work. Although you often sympathize with the person or people you're writing about, professionalism demands that you maintain a certain amount of detachment. Most of the time, your involvement ends when the story is printed. As a journalist, I was used to telling a story and then moving on to the next.
Working in a client's interest is different. You're still telling their story through pleadings, but you're able to help them directly instead of just calling attention to their situation and hoping that someone else listens. You're taking an active role in helping to make things right.
It was also good to be part of an office staff again. I'd missed the feelings of focus and teamwork that come from working with a group of people who are good at what they do. Every profession has its own set of fine points and minute details that one only learns by doing, and I'm indebted to my co-workers for sharing their knowledge.
Sitting in my apartment in Morgantown with a pile of just-purchased textbooks on my coffee table, I'm getting ready for Round Two of law school. The work I did this summer gave me a much stronger grasp of what I'm doing, and a far better appreciation of the difference that a lawyer can make.
Jonathan Price is a Cross Lanes native and a 1994 graduate of Marshall University's W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications. An employee of the Charleston Daily Mail from 1994 to 2005, he is beginning his second year at the West Virginia University College of Law.