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Whatever happened to Ruth Sheehan? Our former columnist fills you in

Ruth Sheehan
Ruth Sheehan N&O File photo

People told me, when I left the newspaper to go to law school, that being a writer would be a huge help in law school.

They were wrong.

In fact, as one of my professors put it (when I went to see him about a lousy B in torts): “Your exam stood out for being exceptionally well written …

... which buys you nothing in law school.”

So they sent me to a series of lunchtime seminars affectionately known as “puke it out on the page” classes, so I could be more successful at the law school game. I’m afraid the puke-it-out method never quite “took.”

But then, what did they expect? After more than two decades as a journalist, I left my job as a reporter and metro columnist for The News & Observer five years ago and entered UNC School of Law with just a few ingrained habits, including an aversion to serial commas and disdain for fancy Latin legal terms in place of plain ol’ English.

People ask me all the time, whatever happened with law school?

Well, I was the second oldest person in my law school class – my dear friend and ALS warrior Vivian Connell beat me for grand dame by 11 months. People had told both of us there would be lots of students our age and stage in law school. Again: wrong. In legalese, apparently, “late in life” means 28.

I’ll never forget during my first year when one of my classmates asked, “What does someone your age do for Spring Break?”

I shoulda said, “Wet T-shirt contest, Daytona Beach.” But I was only a 1L and not that quick on my feet.

At the end of one exam, a dewy-faced study buddy put it in context for me: “This week,” she said, “I took an exam in income tax, and I’ve never paid taxes, and an exam in employment law, and I’ve never had a real job.”

On nights when classmates were heading for drinks at “bar review,” I was fanning my hot flashes and scurrying home to Raleigh to make dinner for my kids. Turns out there were a lot of parallels between law school and parenting; at various moments, it was hilarious, and grueling, rewarding and humbling.

It was also clarifying. Of course, the benefit of being the menopausal law student was that I had had enough life experience to know pretty well the kind of work I wanted to do. As a columnist for The N&O, a job I adored for 11 years, I had always tried to be the voice for the voiceless. That’s mostly what I do as a lawyer, too.

After passing the bar, I was lucky enough to land a job with The Francis Law Firm, a ferocious little shop on Fayetteville Street. We get justice for people who have been injured because of someone else’s negligence, or whose land is being taken by the government without appropriate compensation. You might have seen the recent story on a brother and sister whose family land at Hammocks Beach was almost taken by the government (and later sold to the state for $10 million)? That was our firm.

We also work with colleges and agencies helping people build better lives. My husband is quick to point out that this includes evicting people from public housing occasionally. He likes to say: “Ruth, you used to fight the man. Now you ARE the man.”

Most of the time, though, we are working for the greater good and, sappy as it sounds, that means something to me. It always has. And while being a writer wasn’t much help in law school, it’s come in pretty handy in the daily practice of law. You see, I’m still telling stories and arguing for justice. These days it’s in the courtroom, not the newsroom, but I’m still doing what I love – fighting for the little guy – with a few extra commas and Latin words thrown in.

Ruth Sheehan is a former reporter and metro columnist for The News & Observer. She can be reached at rsheehan@thefrancislawfirm.com or 919-828-0801.

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