February 19, 2015

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Betty J. Boyd

Betty Boyd’s story is one of overcoming immense obstacles and triumphing. In high school, she became functionally blind, but this did not stop her. In fact, her list of accomplishments is long and impressive. She graduated top of her class as an undergraduate in psychology from Long Beach State University. She earned her Master of Arts in psychology from Long Beach and was nominated for the Best Thesis Award. She went on to study law at Western State University College of Law, becoming the first student to use adaptive equipment to complete her law degree. She graduated first in her class, and is currently earning her Tax LLM at Chapman University. Her practice areas include criminal law, civil litigation, and probate, as well as tax. She has served as the Vice Justice for the Sandy Rae Los Angeles American Association for Justice and American Bar Association. She is a former ABA Business Law Section Delegate.

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You were the valedictorian at your law school in December of 2007. Did you enjoy studying law? Did you find it easy?

I did enjoy law school, but finding it easy – far from it. Actually, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make it through. I was the first blind student in the school’s history. I relied on a talking computer and sometimes e-books. Often, the books weren’t available by e-text, so I had to scan them. It was difficult and very time consuming. I remember in contracts class I’d spend two hours just reading one case. It was hard for me to read the braille, so I’d go over it slowly – I basically memorized the case. I remember one time my computer crashed and I just had to recite it from memory.

When you addressed your class and gave the valedictorian speech, what was your main message to your peers?

If you work hard, persevere, and network, you’ll be able to fulfill your dreams of becoming an attorney. I told them I came from a background of little family support. I dropped out of high school in 10th grade when I became blind. I eventually found blind organizations that really helped and encourage me to continue with school. They helped me find ways to do things in alternative ways and to become independent. My ending message was that if someone like me in my circumstances could pass the bar, then they could too.

How did you become interested in becoming an attorney?

Right after my master’s degree, my eyes got worse, and I was wondering what was I going to do. I went to National Federation of the Blind convention and met a group of attorneys who were blind. They came from all parts of the United States and I was really inspired by that. Your readers may not know, but blindness is a range; it can be from 20/200 to total blindness. One attorney was totally blind, and I was amazed. One of the members asked me where did I want to be five years from now. It was a crazy idea, but I said I wish I could be like one of those attorneys. And he said, well, why don’t you? He encouraged me, told me to apply for funding for adaptive software, so I did. I went to the library and scanned the LSAT books, and fortunately I did well. I applied to three schools, the ones I could afford, and Western State gave me a good offer and that is what got me started. Actually, part of my valedictorian speech was asking that question, you know, where do you want to be five years from now?

How is your vision now?

In December 2011, I received a prosthetic lens and now I’m able to see. I can wear it for eight to 10 hours. It’s a PROSE lens, from the Boston Foundation for Sight. It looks like a huge contact lens. I got my guide dog right after I passed the bar, but I still bring my guide dog with me, wherever I go. Now it’s more like I’m just with her. She’s near retirement age.

When you gained sight, what did you want to see first?

Everything. Prior to the lens, everything was a blur. I saw only shapes. So, I just wanted to see everything.

Tell me about your current practice.

For the last six years, I’ve worked on a wide range of law: probate, criminal, and civil litigation. I work for other attorneys, writing motions. I see my own clients, especially tax matters, when someone has a problem with the IRS.

How did you become interested in tax?

In the beginning, I was practicing in so many different areas of law, I thought to be more competitive, I’d better specialize. Tax law cuts across a lot of areas – family law, partnership agreements, probate issues.

You're completing your LLM. Why did you decide to return to school and earn this degree?

I thought another degree would help. It’s a lot more interesting than I originally thought. I'm nearly finished. I've gone slowly, so I have enough time to work with my clients.

You also specialize in business and tax litigation. What do you enjoy about litigation?

I enjoy going to court. It’s the most fun thing to do. Prior to gaining eyesight, I navigated the court with a white cane.

I also enjoy putting the story together. Every client has a story and to pull the little pieces of evidence and put it in one compelling story and to try to persuade the judge, I think that’s just exciting, especially when I find a really good case that parallels the facts.

What don’t you enjoy about litigation?

There’s so much paperwork and that can get really routine. But if you find good information, that part is exciting. It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle. Or, when you look at the discovery responses and there’s a great admission or good quote in a deposition. That is really exciting.

You speak to law schools, focusing on making the transition from student to lawyer. What’s your main message?

I tell students to get legal experience whenever they can, because law school, as we all know, is different from real practice. I do practice what I preach. While I’m getting my tax LLM, I also did an externship with the IRS, and right now I’m working at the tax clinic. So I’m not just studying theory, I’m handling real case matters. You also learn to talk to clients in simple, plain English.

I also talk about the need to network, because it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know. I tell them to get involved with different organizations, because as a student, it’s either free or at very little cost. Once you become an attorney, it’s a few hundred dollars just to attend an event.

You are active in the ABA Business Law Section and have served as a Delegate to the Section and as a Vice Chair of the Pro Bono and the Diversity and Inclusion Committees. If you look these experiences, what has been the value of your involvement?

I would say the networking is very valuable. And, as I said, you’re surrounded by so many other attorneys, you can tap into their experiences and knowledge. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but learn how other attorneys made it through their solo practice or handled similar cases. And it’s really helpful to socialize, because, as I said, one of the hardest aspects of legal work is the paperwork. It’s so much fun to meet other people who are in the same profession, dealing with similar issues. You can also find mentors, or at least people whom you can bounce ideas off.

Have you found mentors?

Yes. There are a couple tax attorneys whom I’ve networked with through school. They’ve been helpful. My professor in my tax clinic course provides feedback, which I find very helpful, too. I think it’s important to always make an affirmative act to seek assistance; otherwise people won’t know. There’s often a disconnect between the theory outlined in a treatise and the way an attorney handles it in real life.

You were the outstanding senior in your class when you earned your bachelor’s degree in psychology and were nominated for best thesis while you earned your master’s degree in psychology. Does your background in psychology help your legal practice?

When developing cognitive strategies with difficult opposing counsel or clients, it’s important to always remain calm. If you hear something negative about your case, it’s important not to show it. Also, when I conduct depositions, it’s important to watch the body-language and paralinguistics, not just what the content is. So, I think that’s been really helpful. It also taught me to be a good listener because as part of that education, I worked as a counselor. Being able to listen to the clients has been very valuable.

What interests do you have outside of the law?

I love going to the gym, aerobic exercise, and I do love baking. I make these healthy cakes of protein powder and olive oil that are cholesterol free, and I like decorating them. It’s very different from the law. I think it’s important to have a work-life balance and legal work is very sedentary, so I always make sure I exercise at least half an hour a day or sometimes an hour a day.

I also know that you have a service dog. How did you find her and what’s her name?

I got her right after I passed the bar, in June 2008. Her name is Unity. She was about two years old because that’s the amount of training that’s required. When I got my lens in December 2011, she had it pretty easy because she only worked an hour or two a day. Wouldn’t we all love that kind of job? So, now she has it really good. She’s about eight years old. She goes to the gym. She loves to eat burgers while she’s on the treadmill. Once, I had her come off the treadmill and take a break, but she liked it so much, she leaped back on. I have her go only three miles per hour, for about one mile. She’s one spoiled dog.