With a mortgage, family commitments, and a full-time job, Jana Johnston knew if she wanted to chase her dream, she needed a local law school offering a flexible and affordable education.
After graduating in 1994 from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Jana Johnston did what college graduates are supposed to do: she found a job—any job. But while working for a private social service agency providing support to seniors, she became increasingly interested in law, a field she noticed was constantly intersecting with her work. With a mortgage, family commitments, and working full time, Johnston knew if she wanted to chase her dream, she needed a local law school offering a flexible and affordable education.
It may have taken some time to discover her calling. But when she did, the Colleges of Law was waiting, ready to advance her career ambitions. Now, as a partner with the law firm Mullen and Henzell L.L.P., Jana’s journey has come full circle. Although the scope of her work has expanded, her practice allows her to work in and support the same community of social service agencies that helped guide her to a successful career.
How would you describe your first experience at college? I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, right out of high school and had no idea what I wanted to do or study. I was very politically active, played club sports, and just really loved my time at UCSB. But because of my intentional make-the-most-of-it, have-a-great-life-experience college outlook, by the time I graduated I was floundering a little bit in regard to goals for employment and my professional life. I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do as a profession and just sort of stumbled into a working life.
What type of work did you “stumble into”? After working at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I eventually accepted an entry-level position at a private social service agency providing support to the elderly. It turned out to be a fantastic opportunity for me. I started as a receptionist, but by the time I ended I had become the Director of Fiduciary Services. That role is what ultimately led to my interest in law.
How did your role affect your interest in law? As I advanced with my company, I began doing more legally affiliated work. The company provided care management and daily money management services, helping seniors remain independent as long as possible and supporting families in their efforts to provide care for seniors. The company also acted as conservator, trustee, and power of attorney for folks. I worked on complex issues of capacity, including planning for and managing incapacity, and collaborated with the attorneys advising and representing the company on those matters. I developed relationships with the local attorneys and the Court, and became more connected to and interested in the legal work. I saw where I could go by enrolling in law school.
What made you choose the Colleges of Law? My boss, who I admired and respected, at some point during a conversation made a small comment, which for me turned out to be monumental. She mentioned the Colleges of Law and how she had this fantasy of going to Colleges of Law and becoming a lawyer. She said that it was this well respected but kind of hidden gem in Santa Barbara. She never ended up going, but for me, it started my whole thinking of, “Hey, what about that?” Then I jumped in, and I enrolled in law school.
What was your first impression of Colleges of Law? I remember going to a meeting for prospective students and the dean was very upfront about the differences between a California accredited law school like the Colleges of Law and ABA-accredited schools, and the pros and cons of each. She encouraged all of us to think about our goals and determine whether the Colleges of Law was the right for each of us. I so appreciated this student-focused approach from the outset. It was: “This is what this school has to offer, and if it fits for you it’s fantastic, but make sure it fits.” For me, it definitely did fit.
How would you describe your Colleges of Law experience? The Colleges of Law was fantastic, but law school is hard work—going to school at night and studying for what feels like every waking hour. But I just loved it. When you talk to lawyers, there are sort of two distinct groups. There’s one group that hated law school and oftentimes hate being a lawyer. Then there are the folks who love law school and love being a lawyer, and I am definitely in that latter category. I’ve always thought that a lot of that has to do with the choice being mine. I think lots of folks go to law school right after college because it just seems like a good thing to do or because their parents want them to. But for me, by the time I chose law school, it was a very intentional and personal choice.
Do you ever regret not attending a more well-known law school? I am sure that I would have loved the opportunity to not work through law school and to immerse myself in a full-time law school experience at a more well-known law school. But that was not an option for me. And the benefits that come from going to the Colleges of Law, as opposed to a more known school, are that I was able to get a fantastic legal education, graduate, pass the Bar, and get my dream job at Mullen & Henzell LLP. At the same time, I was paying my mortgage, and making good on my family commitments without incurring student loan debt. I always joke about school snobs. Those are the folks who keep the ranking of law schools in their mind. What I know is that I went to the Santa Barbara College of Law, and I got my dream job at this fabulous firm in Santa Barbara. One of my first tasks was to be a recruiting partner, and review resumes and decide who to interview. I realized that there were a lot of folks from those big law schools who didn’t get the job that I got. And there are a lot of folks from those big law schools who graduated with a substantial amount of debt.
How has your career evolved from that first college experience at UCSB? I am now a partner with the firm Mullen and Henzell LLP. I joined the firm in 2004, right after graduating from the Colleges of Law. I’ve been a partner for several years. I am goofily happy. This was my dream job. I was thrilled to get the offer, and it has been a fantastic place to work. I just feel like the goofy kid every time someone asks me about it. I’m just still so thrilled. I do probate and real property litigation. My day-to-day is exciting, frustrating, demanding, and rewarding. Litigation keeps you on your toes and I think it can be rough to get into it, but I’ve really grown to love what I do.
How is Colleges of Law viewed throughout the community? In our Santa Barbara community, the Colleges of Law is very well regarded. There are local judges, the district attorney, and other leaders in the legal community who are graduates of the Colleges of Law. Our alumni are everywhere. The Colleges of Law provided me everything I needed and positioned me financially so much farther ahead than many people who made a different choice for law school. For me, it was just absolutely the right choice. For a lot of folks, it really makes so much sense.