Alumni op-ed: Jodi Ettenberg, BCL/LLB’02

March 2011

Jodi Ettenberg hiking in the Philippines in 2009

Jodi Ettenberg graduated with a B.C.L. and LL.B. from the Faculty in 2002 and worked as a corporate lawyer in New York City until she quit her job to travel the world in 2008. What was initially intended to be a year-long journey around the globe has turned into a much larger undertaking. Ettenberg has a large and loyal readership on her blog, Legal Nomads, and her post below contains links to adventures and incidents referenced therein. Her perspective brings a different flavour to this month’s focus on legal careers and showcases the truly global reach of the McGill program.

How much of our legal education informs the way we think today? This is a question that percolates under the surface, regardless of where I am. I’ve been out of private practice and travelling since early 2008, yet my brain still wanders along the same path that initially took shape in my first year of law school ten years prior. Though my daily life is currently far from the outer fringes of a legal career, I still find my mind moving in its well-trained circles, analysing the politics and culture of a new place in a specific way, seeking the underlying why in everything I do. If you take the girl out of law, can you take the law out of the girl? The answer, resoundingly, is no.

Three years of budget travel around the world will change you. How could it not? I’ve sat on the roof of a minibus with a goat in my lap, singing it to sleep. I’ve gotten stranded on the Irawaddy river in Burma, with only my safety whistle to rescue me. I’ve eaten my way through Laos, lived with nomads in Mongolia, and watched as protest-drenched Bangkok went up in flames, and my street with her. Throughout these and many other (mis)adventures, I’ve found myself asking questions about why people do what they do and how different levels of society mesh together to make a place what it is today. That doesn’t make my way of travel any better than anyone else’s, but it’s certainly different from a lot of the tourists I meet. And I think that this constant thirst to understand and to unearth the backstory – whatever it may be – was something I learned way back in law school and honed in my years of practicing law.

In Myitkyina, Myanmar.

People often ask me why I would put in so many years of training and then quit my job to travel the world, a question with different undertones depending on who is asking it. Many travellers on a shorter vacation want to know how I could give up a New York salary and still feel like I did the right thing. Others (mostly Americans) ask about school debt. My Canadian tuition was so reasonable that I paid off any lingering debt in my first years of practice, an answer that leaves their mouths agape. Others (usually older travellers) want to know whether I get lonely, whether I’ve gotten hurt along the way. I usually tell them about my many bouts of bronchitis and food poisoning, and about all the other incredible travellers that I’ve met on my journey who make those sick, hazy days easier to bear. And then there are the locals, who are baffled that I would choose to sit in a cramped, chaotic morning market with them and stuff myself with noodle soup when I could be sitting at a desk and working as a lawyer. Unquestionably, they are confused. And inevitably they just look at me, give me more soup and shake their heads.

It’s a big joke in my family that I applied to law school because someone bet me that I couldn’t get in.  But it’s true. And when McGill did accept me straight out of CEGEP I thought it would be a big act of hubris to say no. Besides, there was nothing else I was aching to do and I was excited to learn a new way to think, a richer way of seeing the world. I admit to feeling intellectually inferior from the get go – on my first day of Civil Law Property with Professor Lametti when someone answered a question with the intro “well, when I did my PhD I learned…” I remember thinking that I could not talk in class because starting a sentence with “well, in high school I learned….” seemed like a terrible idea.

But as the months went on, I found my own place in the Faculty, found the things that interested me, the ways to feel a part of a bigger movement of knowledge and understanding. And my initial suspicion that my legal education would inform me for the rest of my life and instill in me a very important curiosity has proven correct. This is what I keep telling those who ask me what I’m doing and why: because I’ve been taught that I can. Because it makes me happy to see and eat and share with others who might not be able to travel this way, who might not know that street food is so accessible, that learning about the history of a place goes farther than they can imagine toward making it somewhere special.

And I’m not the only one.

Collage of photos by Jodi Ettenberg.

I’ve met many other lawyers and former lawyers on my travels and asked them how their legal background changes their worldview. The common thread in their responses led me to start a new series on my site called Thrillable Hours. Lawyers find the play on Billable Hours hilarious; non-lawyers give me a look that says “good god, you’re a bunch of nerds.” The series is meant to highlight lawyers who are doing unconventional things, be it inside or outside the practice of law. In the Q&A I ask “How does your legal education inform the way you see the world today?” It has been very rewarding to see the responses among people who are now crime novelists, Red Cross employees, stand up comedians and more. Consistently, they speak to the responsibility toward others and they credit law school and their practice for the unique way that they approach their everyday lives.

That’s a pretty powerful thing.

I only recently turned my travel site back to the practice of law, but I thoroughly enjoyed coming full circle this way. The notion that it’s a waste of time to go to law school if you don’t end up in a private firm somewhere is a fallacy, especially if your school is in Canada (and doesn’t put you into tens of thousands of dollars of debt). And ultimately, the way that I see the places I visit, the voice that has drawn people to read what I’ve written (despite the fact that I only started my site to keep my mother apprised of my whereabouts) owes a big debt of gratitude to my years of studying law.

~ Jodi Ettenberg

Jodi Ettenberg graduated with a B.C.L. and L.L.B. from the Faculty in 2002 and worked as a corporate lawyer in New York City until she quit her job to travel the world in 2008. What was initially intended to be a year-long journey around the globe has turned into a much larger undertaking. Ettenberg has a large and loyal readership on her blog, Legal Nomads, and her post below contains links to adventures and incidents referenced therein. Her perspective brings a different flavour to this month’s focus on legal careers and showcases the truly global reach of the McGill program.
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  1. [...] McGill Law School asked me to contribute a piece about how my legal education influences me today, which dovetailed nicely with my new Thrillable Hours series (I pose the same question to each of [...]