As a child growing up, I knew that I wanted to be an attorney for a large media company. Everything I did was centered on achieving this one goal. After graduating from law school and taking the bar exam, I quickly came to learn that becoming the general counsel for a media company would not be as easy as I thought. I graduated from law school in 2008, during the height of an economic recession and legal jobs were hard to find. I sent out countless resumes to no avail.
After months of applying to job positions with no success, I started to become discouraged. I began to think I made a mistake deferring my admission to Queen Mary’s University in London to obtain my LLM in International Law. When I was about to give up all hope, I was offered a position to be a constituent service intern in the then-Senator Barack H. Obama’s office. I was still waiting on my bar exam results to come back and had not secured a legal job, so I welcomed the internship.
The work of a constituent service intern is not a glamorous one, but it’s important. The internship consisted of answering phone calls from constituents in Obama’s district. At the time, he was running for president of the United States so we received calls from all over the United States. The constituent service intern was responsible for making everyone who called feel welcomed and assured that their concerns had been heard. Talking to people on the phone from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. helped me develop patience, empathy and become a strong listener. These are all skills I use today as an attorney.
The senior staffers noticed my hard work ethic, and I was promoted to a different internship position. In my new internship position, I would research grant opportunities for constituents. I would also write letters on behalf of Obama.
After completing my day at the senate office, I would frequently volunteer at Obama’s campaign office, which was located at 566 W. Lake Street. Election night 2008 was a surreal experience for me. I remember standing in Grant Park, and the late fall weather felt like spring. The CNN election coverage was on the jumbo screen. All of a sudden the screen went black, and when it came back on the news announcer had pronounced Barack H. Obama as the next president of the United States. Everyone in Grant Park started cheering and hugging each other. It was interesting to see people from all walks of life united and celebrating a common victory. Then the new first family came out: Barack, Michelle Obama, Sasha Obama and Malia Obama.
Many of the staffers in the senate and campaign office took on roles in the Obama White House. I elected to remain in Chicago. I’d just learned that I passed the bar exam and was a newly minted attorney. I wanted to pursue legal opportunities in Chicago. I was still committed to my goal of becoming an attorney for a media company. From November to December 2008, I continued to apply for legal jobs to no avail.
During my time at Obama’s senate office, I made friends with the security guards in the building. The son of one of the security guards was an up-and-coming rapper. He had a copyright infringement dispute against Soulja Boy for the song Birdwalk. I talked to one of my legal mentors, and he said it was a viable copyright infringement dispute and agreed to mentor me behind the scenes. That was my first client matter.
On January 1, 2009, I started my law practice at an office space located at 566 W. Lake Street. Interestingly, it was the same building that was the location for Barack Obama’s campaign office.
Recommended Reading: “Black History Month legal tribute: former FLOTUS Michelle Obama”
I recall being in the office when the new president gave his Inauguration address. The following phrases from his speech had a profound impact on me:
“It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”
It was never my intention to start my own law practice. After listening to the words of Obama’s speech, I knew that I wanted to build a successful law practice so that I could provide jobs for others. Being a business owner is not for the faint of heart. It is the hardest thing that I have done in life. What keeps me going is knowing that each day I am using my legal knowledge to help someone and help others expand on their own professional goals.
Please visit J. Paye in Brief’s News to read the entire six-part Black History Month legal series tribute, honoring former President Barack H. Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, Nelson Mandela, Loretta Lynch, Kamala Harris and Charlotte E. Ray.
Find out more about Johnetta Paye Esq. at J. Paye & Associates today.