What becomes a pre-law student most?
Jason C. Astle didn’t go to law school until he was 31. He was too busy doing a few other things: helping run a domestic-violence program in Durango; building an elementary school in Cameroon; and keeping defendants out of jail in England. You know: the usual.
“I didn’t want to regret walking away from opportunities,” explains Astle, who had his heart set on becoming a lawyer ever since he and his high school team in Evergreen won the state mock trial championships. “The salaries that attorneys need to make to pay off debt and support families … limits young attorneys’ [ability] to go out and have adventures.”
So right after graduating from Colorado College, he accepted an offer to work as an apprentice at an Oxford law firm where his dad’s cousin is a solicitor.
“If one of the firm’s clients got arrested, I would go down to the police station, represent them while they were being interrogated, and then I’d try to keep them out of jail,” he says.
In the British justice system, solicitors appear only in lower-level courts, before a panel of magistrates who are described by Astle as “typically elderly people who had time on their hands, but they were not trained attorneys. They were a little bit of a wild card at the time. The solicitors I worked with found it frustrating.”
More serious criminal cases are sent along to the Crown Court, where only barristers—who can be hired by either prosecution or defense—are allowed to appear. “That independence is meant to create a sense of legitimacy in terms of the advocacy, a sense of collegiality; they don’t have any personal stake one way or the other,” Astle says.
At the same time, the British legal system was more stratified by class, he recalls. “In order to become a barrister, you have to go through a somewhat lengthy apprenticeship period after you get your law degree,” he says. Back then, barrister apprenticeships were, he says, “basically unpaid, so you have to have a fair amount of personal resources in order to become a barrister to begin with. I think our system tends to make it more open and available to people who might qualify for scholarships,” although rising costs at U.S. law schools may be changing that reality, he adds.
After his apprenticeship, Astle returned to Colorado and took a position at the district attorney’s office in Durango as an advocate for domestic-violence victims. “It was myself and another district attorney basically who operated this specialized unit,” he says.
The program, funded through a Violence Against Women Act grant, pioneered ideas that are now commonly implemented: evaluating defendants on a fast track to get them to plead guilty and begin counseling as soon as possible, while also getting the victim immediately into counseling. A partially dedicated magistrate judge helped expedite matters.
“There was pretty clear evidence that the longer it took to resolve those cases, the more likely it was that victims would become less and less cooperative,” Astle notes.
After two years there, he spent another two-and-a-half as a health care volunteer with the Peace Corps in Cameroon, Africa, focusing on HIV/AIDS education and building an elementary school to serve several villages on the edge of the rainforest.
When it was time for law school, he says, “I focused heavily on schools that had strong practical skills programs: things that practicing lawyers needed to know how to do out of the gate, because the apprenticeship system here is kind of broken down. Law firms don’t typically invest in training associates in the ways that they used to.” He found what he wanted at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
Since 2013 he has practiced general litigation at Springer & Steinberg. He also handles some appellate work and takes on pro bono cases when he can. Time is hard to come by, which is why he’s happy for his decade-long, globetrotting experience.
“I was single, I had no debt; it was a function of generating enough income to live and work where I wanted to,” he says. “I’m really glad that I was able to do some of the things I did in my 20s when I had those opportunities.”