Ruth Hochberger

I am one of those oddballs who went to law school knowing full well that I would most likely not practice law when I got out. My goal was to be a legal journalist, writing about the law and making the legal system understandable to those of us – i.e., everyone – who needed to know how it worked.

Finding her own beat
After graduating in 1975, I looked unsuccessfully for a job in journalism in New York City. Finding none, I spent a year as a criminal defense lawyer at The Legal Aid Society in the Manhattan criminal court. Shortly before a year had gone by, I was hired as the first feature reporter for the New York Law Journal, a daily newspaper for lawyers in New York. My assignment was to write stories about the legal profession: firms, specialty areas, profiles of individual lawyers, how the profession was doing in including women and minorities, almost anything that touched on the law was my beat. It was a dream job, and I really learned how to be a journalist — also how to interview lawyers, who consider themselves the masters of interviewing!

After about eight years, I was asked to start a division of the New York Law Publishing Company to publish monthly newsletters for lawyers in specialty fields: matrimonial law, product liability, equipment leasing, telecommunications, among others. This gave me a quick cram course in the business side of publishing: hiring editors, vetting contracts with printers and mailers, learning about subscription promotion and renewals. This business side of the field – something I had never really been interested in before – stood me in good stead when I came to edit the Law Journal.

After five years in this job, I returned to the daily Law Journal as managing editor during a time when there were resources for expansion and hiring. Two years later, I became the Law Journal’s first woman editor-in-chief. If anyone had ever told me, 15 years earlier, that I would have the opportunity to run a well respected, often quoted, and highly regarded daily newspaper in New York City, I would have laughed out loud.

Ten years later, for a variety of reasons – changes in ownership, the advent of unionization, fewer resources for print products, 25 years at the same company – I left the Law Journal, wondering what my Act III would be.

Following a year of doing very little professionally (for the first time in my life), I began teaching, at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, a course in “Covering Courts, Trials and the Justice System.” I have now been teaching for 14 years, and currently teach graduate journalism students at New York University and the City University of New York a required course in legal and ethical issues in journalism, and law students at New York Law School a course in media law. In addition, I occasionally blog for The Huffington Post.

Obviously, my legal education played a significant role in my so-called “non-legal” career, and probably the most formative experience was the two years I spent in the law school’s Legal Assistance Bureau (LAB), seeing how the law impacted ordinary people’s lives and impressing on me the importance of lawyers in making sure citizens got to be heard and had their rights represented.

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