Vol. 40 No. 8
ByLeslie A. Gordon
Leslie A. Gordon is a secret lawyer who has been working as a freelance legal affairs journalist for more than 10 years.
Jodi Ettenberg never went to college, but when a friend bet her that she couldn’t get into law school, she was determined to prove she could. At 18, she was accepted to law school at McGill University in her hometown of Montreal. She graduated in 2002 at 22.
As a 2L summer associate at Paul Weiss in New York, Ettenberg wasn’t even old enough to share a round of drinks with the lawyers. But she impressed the firm enough to receive a permanent offer. She deferred her start date so she could earn a master’s in European intellectual property in France and spend time in South America focused on sustainable law.
Later, Ettenberg worked as a Paul Weiss corporate lawyer and then as an advertising lawyer at Davis & Gilbert. Meanwhile, she saved for travel, sparked by a documentary she’d seen in high school about the Transylvania trains. “I thought, ‘I have to do this someday,’” she remembers.
In 2008, Ettenberg and a former opposing counsel who’d become a friend left their jobs to roam the world. After a year, her friend returned, but for Ettenberg, traveling became a new lifestyle. Today, she moves organically among regions, driven largely by food recommendations. “I’m obsessed with food,” she says, noting that is why she spent two and a half years in Southeast Asia. “I was like, ‘Curry for breakfast? I’m staying!’”
Ettenberg has also visited South Africa, Russia (finally getting to see those trains), Mongolia, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Turkey, and Morocco. She stays as long as she needs to “get under the skin” of a place. “The first thing I do is find a market and hear the noise and observe the movement of a place,” says Ettenberg, who carries just a laptop and a small backpack.
Her website, legalnomads.com, has become a cyber hit. Specializing in longer form narrative and photo essays, Ettenberg blogs once or twice a week. She doesn’t monetize the site with advertising or sponsorship. “If you brand yourself as an authentic voice, you can use the site as a platform for other things.” Her site also includes a regular feature called “Thrillable Hours” where Ettenberg interviews other lawyers who similarly travel and document their experiences.
Ettenberg now funds her travels with freelance work including writing, photography, and speaking at conferences. She notes that her legal background has been a great benefit while on the receiving end of publishing and other contracts. “I know how to handle them, I know what an indemnity is and after working in new media and technology law, I’m familiar with the privacy issues online as well,” she says .
Her legal skills, which she describes as “portable to other professions,” have come in handy in other ways. “It gave me a backbone,” she explains. “I won ‘Most Easily Embarrassed’ in high school because I was really shy. This education has done a lot for my personality. I also learned how to formulate arguments, which helped me when I got caught in the middle of riots in Bangkok.”
Still, Ettenberg doesn’t expect to return to law. “I’m grateful for the training and I’ve kept up my bar admission. My worst-case scenario is going back to law and, as worst cases go, that’s not a bad thing.”