After the disaster years of 2007-8 for young lawyers, and for years beyond, when the recession hit and hopelessness for a lost generation of law students put a cloud over the legal profession, the gurus of legal success urged baby lawyers to do whatever they could to promote themselves. Lie about their experience and skills on their website? Check. Pay to get a gig giving CLE presentations to lawyers far more experienced and knowledgeable in order to manufacture credibility? Check. Create a logo? Hey, desperate times call for silly measures.
Jenna Ellis graduated from the University of Richmond School of Law in 2011. We were still neck deep in lawyers without futures, cranking them out even though they had nowhere to go, and Richmond was no Harvard. To her credit, Ellis got a job, even if it wasn’t much of a job.
Jenna Ellis broke into the legal profession in 2012 as a deputy district attorney in Weld County, Colo., a largely rural area that would soon make headlines for a failed attempt to secede from the rest of the state because some residents resented the growing dominance of more liberal communities to the south like Denver. Ms. Ellis prosecuted crimes like theft and assault, felonies of a different magnitude from the claims of sweeping fraud and criminal conspiracy she makes today as a top lawyer to President Trump.
Sure, she was just a pedestrian local prosecutor, like so many others of banal consequence. Presumably, she started out like most baby prosecutors, doing the low-rent work that pleads out quickly or ends in a bench trial at worst. There aren’t many Marcia Clark opportunities out there, so it’s not her fault if she never tried a murder case, or maybe even a felony before a jury.
Ellis was fired after six months, but she bounced back.
It wasn’t long before she parlayed her law degree and experience as a prosecutor into jobs that thrust her beyond her corner of the state: She took a position with James Dobson, the evangelical heavyweight, joined the faculty at Colorado Christian University and started appearing on Denver radio as a legal commentator.
Granted, becoming an academic carries a lot of ascribed cred in society, mostly because academics keep pounding on their expertise and scholarship constantly lest anyone realize that most of them couldn’t stand up in a courtroom without collapsing in a blubbering pile of frightened tears.
And it would be mean of lawyers (ugh, lawyers, amirite?) not to be empathetic toward prawfs whose entire careers are built on bizarre theories being read by ten other prawfs and getting invited to speak on a panel. Or being available on a moment’s notice as a legal commentator to validate whatever conclusions a journalist needed validating.
But Colorado Christian University didn’t have a law school. Teaching law to undergrads isn’t exactly the same as teaching law to law students, which in itself isn’t exactly the same as knowing law, and certainly not the practice of law.
Jenna Ellis, however, had an ace in the hole. For years, legal success ninjas promoted the notion that there was no niche too specialized, no pitch too shameless, for baby lawyers to create to achieve prominence. Ellis found her groove.
By late 2018, regular viewers of cable news would come to know Ms. Ellis as a “constitutional law attorney” — her preferred title — who aggressively came to Mr. Trump’s defense as he faced investigation and impeachment.
When there was nobody save Dersh willing to stand up for the president, Jenna Ellis stepped into the breach. Hey, Dersh couldn’t do it all, and my old pal Turley had yet to become hated following his testimony at the impeachment trial, after which he apparently said, “fuck it,” and went all in.
Is Jenna Ellis a “constitutional law attorney”? Well, the first problem was that no such thing existed, which doesn’t make her wrong for creating it. For years, whenever I was asked how I wanted to be introduced, I would say “criminal defense lawyer,” which always brought a complaint. There were tons of CDLs, and that didn’t make me “special” enough for media. “Aren’t you even a former federal prosecutor,” I was asked? Nope. Sorry.
So what if there is no such thing as a “constitutional law attorney”? There is if she says there is, and if the media calls her that. The people watching don’t know any better, and that made her special enough for those who wanted her to be credible to make her so.
And so what if there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her legal experience that qualified her to go anywhere near a case involving constitutional issues?
On paper, the Trump campaign calls her a senior legal adviser. She has recently appeared alongside Rudolph W. Giuliani and other Trump lawyers — a group Ms. Ellis described as an “elite strike force team” — at public hearings where she amplified the president’s false claims of widespread voter fraud.
She found her role, as Odie to Giuliani’s Garfield. And not for nothing, but Rudy’s not all that qualified to be doing election law, or any other law, either. And he was a former federal prosecutor. Go figure.
In a written statement responding to questions about her record, Ms. Ellis described herself as “a highly experienced and highly qualified attorney and expert in my field.” Any assertions to the contrary “cast me in a false light,” she said. The Trump campaign provided the name of one federal case in which it said Ms. Ellis had participated, in 2012, when she was a year out of law school. But her name is not among the lawyers listed in the decision, and the case was not heard in a regular federal court, but rather in an administrative tribunal.
So Jenna Ellis isn’t a big time lawyer, doesn’t have any experience, isn’t remotely qualified to be a senior legal advisor to a president and is basically there as a shameless mouthpiece for the worst “dream team” ever. That doesn’t make her unique in terms of baby lawyers. It just makes her a more successful poseur than so many other baby lawyers. Don’t hate her for being successful, even if it’s only for being able to pull it off.