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Ever since she can remember, Jean Connolly has had an avid interest in the field of law. Her friends, she said, thought it was a suitable calling for her, basing their conjecture on her rational ability to see a problem from every possible angle. Connolly sees it as a way to do what she has always wanted to do — champion the underdog. “It’s something I’ve been doing all my life,” Connolly said. “I want to be able to help those who can’t help themselves.” For 25 years, Connolly was an elementary school teacher in the South Boston area. But a few years ago, after taking early retirement from teaching, Connolly decided to follow a new direction. She decided to go to law school. Last month, Connolly — a mother and grandmother — graduated from Rutgers University School of Law-Camden, N.J., and she is working as an intern at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. She has also received a scholarship from the Camden N.J. County Bar Foundation. Although Connolly is among the older students in her graduating class, her graduating class included many age groups. Of the Rutgers-Camden Law School class of 2000, 20 percent of full-time students were age 30 or older, according to the school’s statistics. Another retired schoolteacher and classmate received his law degree at a venerable 71 years of age. A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE Although she won’t disclose her age, Connolly said that going to law school as a nontraditional student had both benefits and drawbacks. The recent graduate said she experienced a dual reaction to the stress of pursuing a degree. “I hit the panic button sooner,” Connolly said. “I learned that the only way out was with a sense of humor. I have a lot of life experience behind me and it gave me a different perspective.” That grounding experience, and a firm intent to use her law degree to help the disadvantaged, helped Connolly navigate her way through many of the rough patches she encountered during her three years in law school. She avoided the minefield generated by competition between students angling for the plum law firm positions, which are offered to those with the highest grades. “The entire student body is used to getting A’s,” Connolly said. “I was able to watch their ups and downs, and some were bitterly disappointed, but most were able to rise to the competition and maintain a degree of cooperation without becoming unkind.” Connolly did not, however, escape the pressure of trying to land a job after graduation, until she had the good fortune to receive the Louis C. Portella Memorial Scholarship Award. The needs-based scholarship could not have come at a better time for Connolly, who is using the funds to attend a bar exam prep class this summer at Rutgers-Camden. Judge John A. Fratto of the Superior Court of New Jersey chairs the Louis C. Portella Memorial Scholarship subcommittee, which is named after someone he regarded not only as a good attorney, but a friend. In fact, one of Portella’s three sons clerked for Judge Fratto a few years ago. Fratto said several factors are weighed when awarding the $1,000 annual scholarship to one individual among the pool of applicants. The chairman of the seven-member panel instructs the committee to consider grades and scholarly ability, but that is only part of the criteria used to select each year’s scholarship recipient. “We try to determine if this individual will be a good addition to the legal community,” Fratto said. A DEFENDER In addition to studying for the bar this summer, Connolly is also serving as an intern for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Last summer she worked for the Homeless Advocacy Project sponsored by the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, which assisted individuals whom the police picked up on the streets. She worked alongside other advocates who believed that a Philadelphia law came close to criminalizing mental illness. “When the state hospitals closed, they had no programs in place for those who suffer from chronic mental illness,” Connolly explained. “So often the indigent are mentally ill, not just drug- and alcohol-addicted, and they need to be represented.” On Sept. 11, Connolly will begin work as an assistant public defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. This will be the start of a three-year commitment during which she will handle literally hundreds of cases. Of the 5,000 arrests per month in the city, the association handles 70 to 80 per cent of the resulting cases on the Philadelphia criminal docket, according to the association’s most recent statistics. Joseph Cassidy, who will be working closely with Connolly this summer, is one of 200 public defenders at the Defender Association. He said the work the staff does there is noble but grueling, and new recruits are expected to work long hours for little monetary reward. “It will be a trial by fire,” said Cassidy, describing a typical assistant defender workday, which begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. “Her green feet will be well worn at the end of one year.” This summer, however, Connolly will assist public defenders who represent clients in Philadelphia’s treatment court, which provides an alternative to prosecution for first-time drug offenders. Based on a model instituted in Miami, the program within the municipal court division is designed to treat the underlying addiction that compels some drug users to sell illegal drugs primarily to support their habit. “Jean is an honorable individual,” Cassidy said. “She’s opting for less pay to align herself with the less fortunate.” Connolly, who lives in Philadelphia, said she does not believe that her goals are exceptional nor should her interest in public advocacy reflect unfavorably on the law students who opted for associate positions in a more conventional setting. “Some wanted to do public interest and went for the big firms instead. I would encourage anyone who had that opportunity to take it and not feel guilty,” she said. “There are plenty of opportunities for young lawyers to earn money and do pro bono work.” Having earned multiple degrees before her juris doctor, namely a B.A. in English Literature and a Masters degree in Special Education, Connolly nevertheless learned something other than law during her three years in law school. “More than my other degrees, the need to allow for mutual support was a big change for me. It was not just for me to give but to accept and receive as well,” she said.

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