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Getting laid off from her firm job less than a year after graduating with her J.D. was not the start to a budding law career that Jenna Persons had envisioned. However, it did present the 26-year-old with the opportunity to pursue public office — something she has long been interested in but didn’t think would be realistic until later in life. Persons is one of three candidates in the Sept. 15 primary election for mayor of Fort Myers, a city of approximately 70,000 in southwest Florida. She’s the youngest on the ballot by almost two decades and the only woman in the race. “I thought, ‘Now is the time.’ People are so upset at the way their local and state governments have been run,” Persons said. “People are tired of the same old thing and they want some creativity.” Not that Persons would have predicted one year ago that she would be on the campaign trail. After graduating in three years from Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., with double degrees in journalism and political science, the Fort Myers native headed to George Washington University Law School after coaching tennis at her undergraduate alma mater for one year. She had already worked for several politicians during her undergraduate years, including Missouri Congressman Roy Blunt, and said that she was drawn to Washington because of her interest in politics. She spent the summer after her 2L year with the Akron, Ohio-based firm Roetzel & Andress and became an associate in the commercial litigation department of the Fort Myers office after graduating from George Washington in May 2008. “I thought, ‘This is great. It’s one of the most prestigious law firms in southwest Florida,’ ” Persons said. The firm has five Florida offices. Persons worked on foreclosures, contract disputes and eminent domain cases. She liked the firm and her co-workers and felt hopeful about the future. “Once you get into a firm, you think you will be there forever. You will work your way up the ladder to partner,” she said. But her firm couldn’t escape the economic downturn. Roetzel & Andress laid off some staffers in fall 2008 and then followed up another round of attorney and staff layoffs in late winter. Persons got the news that she was being laid off on her birthday, Feb. 18. “I was sick with the flu that day. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as shocked and sick and scared in my life,” she said. “But now I look at it as an opportunity to reassess what I wanted to do. I don’t have to stick with the law firm life.” What Persons did know is that she wanted to stay in Fort Myers, where her family has lived for six generations, and within about a month jumped into the mayoral race. She’s been campaigning since April on a platform of better financial management and unifying the still largely segregated city. She said that she is receiving a lot of support and hopes to get more than 50 percent of the vote to win the primary outright, although skeptics consider her too young for the position. In addition to campaigning, Persons is trying to get a solo practice off the ground and has been taking legal jobs here and there. She advised other laid-off attorneys with few firm job prospects to be open to new career paths. “Think outside the box,” she said. “Go back to the areas you’ve always had an interest in. Start your own business. You may have to put you’re legal practice on the side for now.”

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