Opportunity from Even the Worst Circumstances

Vol. 42 No. 4

By

LESLIE A. GORDON (leslie.gordon@stanford alumni.org) is a secret lawyer who has been working as a freelance legal affairs journalist for more than ten years.

Cara Esposito attributes her legal career to a dangerously close brush with tragedy. She escaped an attack by a serial rapist. That event introduced her to the inner workings of the criminal justice system. She worked closely with prosecutors on her case, which was work she found that she “loved.” Because of that experience, Esposito enrolled in law school, eager to become a prosecutor herself.

After graduating from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles in 1998, Esposito joined the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and spent just shy of ten years there handling all kinds of cases, eventually focusing on juvenile matters.

In 2007, a private foundation with which she was familiar experienced a “very large liquidity event,” growing its reserves from $2 million to $47 million. As a result, the foundation needed help “following the law and the required standards and operations,” Esposito recalled. Esposito found herself in a position where she could help the foundation design its mission. She loved being a prosecutor and was passionate about her work with juveniles. But the opportunity to help lots of kids through the foundation proved too tempting.

Today, Esposito is executive director of that organization, the Leonetti/O’Connell Family Foundation. The foundation funds innovative education programs in Southern California. In that role, she takes a “36,000-foot view” of the institution by building large-scale initiatives, such as a teacher development program that took more than a year of planning.

Although she’s no longer practicing law in the traditional sense, Esposito insisted that she “couldn’t do this job” without being a lawyer. “I can write circles around everyone. Also, speaking is a large part of my job and I never could do it without having been in litigation or done moot court in law school.”

Also, because she’s an attorney, Esposito has “a different way of thinking: I get right to the point. There’s no BS. You can get from point A to point B without a lot of moving around in between.”

At the same time that Esposito joined the foundation, she also returned to school to get a master’s in public administration from University of Southern California. She’s now working on her doctorate in policy analysis and planning. Law school training enabled her to excel in those degree programs as well.

Being a lawyer also honed her time management skills. “I never put anything off.”

Her legal education has proved so “invaluable,” Esposito said, “I’d go back just to get it if I didn’t have it.”

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