If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.
This is me.
Being sworn into the bar by my father. In the courtroom of one of the most feared criminal judges to rule over a courtroom.
And this was right in the middle of jury selection on a death penalty case. They took a five minute recess to swear me in and my father was ordered back to work.
I followed in my father’s footsteps and became a lawyer. But it took me years to get there.
I never really fit in until I found the law.
I wouldn’t say I was an outcast in elementary school. At the time, I went to a Catholic grammar school in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was a city school, and we played on a pavement lot that had crack vials scattered around. The teachers would tell us not to pick them up, and while it was nobody’s idea of paradise, it wasn’t a bad place. The teachers cared, the families cared and the education set me off on a lifetime of loving to learn. But I wasn’t the same as the other students. Always expected to succeed. To be near the top of the class in grades. The nerd who got along with everyone and everyone just knew I would be heading to college. That wasn’t the same path expected of most of my classmates. It was expected I would go to Prep.
After grammar school I did go to Fairfield College Preparatory School. Boy was it different. I fit in, if you went by outward appearances. But deep inside I knew I didn’t have a lot in common with 99% of the other students there. I rode the bus from Bridgeport and hung out mostly with the students of color. They accepted me and I met some nice guys there, but I was still an outsider.
In fact, over 25 years have passed since I left that school and even at the reunion a while back I felt out of place. All these men had fond remembrances of parties they attended together, about the after school events and jobs they worked together. When I was in High School I was a night janitor. I worked alone, cleaning offices and bathrooms to save money for college. No other teenagers to goof around with. But the purpose of that job was to save money for college. And I did. 25 years later and I don’t know the names of 99% of the guys I went to HS with. But I still see my old boss from when I was a janitor every now and then. And he remembers me.
So when I Ieft for college I thought “this is where it will all change.” I didn’t mind that I didn’t know anyone when I showed up on campus – I would make new friends. I had done it 4 years earlier. But I also knew I was heading towards a career in law and that this 4 year period wasn’t the “last 4 years of freedom” before the working world set in. I kept my head down. Found a professor I really could learn a lot from – made a few friends in some like-minded guys and girls who planned on law school and the 4 years flew by. I haven’t spoken to anyone from college in 20 years. I just never made that connection.
I took some time off after college to save more money. Law school was going to be expensive, and I wanted to work in the field to make sure it was what I wanted to do. I worked nights at a bar, then at a restaurant. Saved my money, and entered law school determined to become an attorney.
Man, law school was terrible. Having worked in a law firm and seeing the day to day reality of what I would be walking into, the other students and I had zero connection to each other. They came from country club worlds, and planned on life hammering out contracts for the sale of shopping malls or mega mergers of businesses. I saw it in the law school events, when students would rub shoulders with judges and laugh at the same tired jokes. That life wasn’t for me. I knew I wanted to help people. Real people. We just didn’t have a lot in common: the other law students and I. But I was used to being the outsider. Doing my own thing. And I could get along with 99% of people with a smile and a firm handshake.
Since I knew what I wanted to do, and how it differed from law school, I just had to suffer through the 3 years to get my degree and I would be on my way. I commuted to Hartford every day for school. 1 hour in the car each way. By myself. If you add up all my commuting time I spent about thirty 24 hour days just driving back and forth to school alone. A month of my life spent in a car to get my degree.
After I graduated I got a job as a Public Defender. $100 per day was all I made. This wasn’t 1970 mind you, this was in 2000. I had classmates that got starting jobs making almost $100,000 a year with zero experience. I was making $26,000 a year. But I was being a lawyer that helped people.
You see, when you find yourself needing a lawyer it usually means something has gone wrong. Something needs to be fixed. You feel like you are on the outside looking in. And it can feel mighty lonely being on the outside. You want to tell everyone “I’m not a bad person“ and “Just accept me” and “I’m no threat I’m a nice person” and you long for that acceptance. You want to be welcomed back into the group of “normal society.”
But sometimes no matter how many ways you try to show them, they just are blind to the good things you offer. That you ARE a good person. That you HAVE A LOT to offer. If they just took a minute to meet you, get to know you, all would be different. To get the know the REAL you – that’s all you want them to do. I know because I have been fighting this battle all my life. How I wished someone would have done that for me when I was in school. Things would probably have been much different. But because you want to get to know people doesn’t mean other people will act the same way. And if that happened I definitely would not be the person I am today.
And that’s why I still get up every day to represent my clients. Most of them have no voice. I get to be that voice. I make sure their voices are HEARD. Together, the world isn’t lonely, and you aren’t going through this alone. Together we can fight for what is right – whether that be a legal defense, a factual defense or maybe even just a better picture of who you are so the judges and prosecutors can’t just treat you like a nobody.
And in the end, despite all the lawyer jokes and everything you hear that’s bad about lawyers, I still believe in our justice system. I believe that sometimes a person just needs someone to stand up and fight for them. I’ve been on this path since childhood and I am not afraid to take on the unpopular defenses because everyone needs a champion. Somebody who will stand beside them and be their advocate when they don’t have the power or strength or argument that needs to be made. I will be that voice for you. You aren’t alone anymore.
Attorney Jay Ruane is a founding partner at Ruane Attorneys. He has worked with DUI and other criminal proceedings since 1998. He also regularly lectures to other attorneys throughout Connecticut.
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