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Samuel Dillon: Pulitzer Prize Winner Leaves Journalism for Public Service Law

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Samuel Dillon, courtesy of Samuel Dillon

More than 30 years ago Samuel Dillon chose to enroll in journalism school rather than law school. That decision led to a highly successful career as a journalist, including almost two decades with the New York Times, two Pulitzer Prizes, an award-winning book, and thousands of articles on the people, governments and institutions of two continents. He covered Central and South America from bureaus in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico and Brazil and the United States from New York City.

In 2011, sipping coffee at his desk in the Times New York newsroom, Dillon signed into Nexis and counted the number of newspaper stories he’d written: 2,500. “What would I accomplish by writing more?” he asked himself. “A couple of days later,” he recalls, “a new report, drafted by a commission of judges and lawyers, popped up on my screen. It said thousands of detained immigrants, many from Latin America, were getting no legal representation in removal proceedings before the Immigration Courts. One of the problems, the study said, was that the non-profits that provide free legal counsel to immigrants lack the funds to hire enough competent lawyers. I figured that public service law could take advantage of the language and other skills I’d accumulated as a journalist.” Not too long after, Dillon would leave the Times and enroll at Rutgers School of Law–Newark (Class of 2015).

Attending law school had, in fact, been a dormant goal of his for decades. Dillon had dropped out of the University of Chicago because of college debt worries and worked for several years as a taxi driver, furniture deliverer, and musician before completing his B.A. in history at the University of Minnesota and applying to law school. “At that time,” he says, “studying law seemed intellectually stimulating after a long stint of proletarian labor.”

He opted instead for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he received one of the Pulitzer Travelling Fellowships given each year to the top three graduates. In the early 1980s guerrilla insurgencies had broken out across Central America and with his degree Dillon got a reporting job at the Associated Press. “Human rights work was not yet well-organized,” he notes, “and it fell to journalists to investigate political kidnappings, army torture and the death squads.” It was an exhilarating and gratifying time. “Back then, a newspaper story documenting a government massacre of peasants could have an immediate impact on Washington policymakers. In short, journalism felt like public service. Later in my career,” Dillon adds, “that sense of satisfaction got harder to duplicate. Newspapering became more bureaucratic.”

Not unlike other 1Ls, Dillon found the first semester of law school to be a struggle. “As a news correspondent, I was used to adversity. Two Mexican governors once hauled me in to court using their criminal libel laws. General Noriega detained and deported me from Panama. But at least I could manage my own work week. Law school, I discovered, dominates its hapless 1Ls minute by minute.”

Besides the new challenge of rigid schedules and endless readings, Dillon and his 2012 entering class had to deal with the impact of Hurricane Sandy during their first semester. “Our home flooded,” he reports. “I spent weeks in the basement reviving our furnace and water heater.” As was true for many of his Rutgers colleagues – “Thanks, NJ Transit, for careful disaster planning!” – the commute to Newark became horrific. “Fortunately, semesters two, three and four have been more fun.”

Despite grumbling about the indignities of the 1L experience, Dillon has enjoyed almost all of the classes. “Several that I feared could be super-dull were anything but,” he says. “Professor Sclar’s always-interesting Property Class comes to mind, as does Professor Gonzalez’s Torts – who knew products liability cases could be fascinating? Professor Ho’s Administrative Law class was so difficult it had me scared to death, but we all learned hugely. And I knew I’d enjoy Constitutional Law, but Professor Pope’s class was unforgettable, especially his sequence on the Reconstruction-era jurisprudence that led to U.S. v. Cruikshank and put southern blacks at the mercy of white paramilitaries for half a century.”

New friendships have enriched his law school experience. Dillon gives a special mention to classmate David Gonzalez who “took pity on me during Sandy and started driving me to school. That was awfully nice.”    

Some newspaper skills – meeting deadlines, organizing investigations, and asking a lot of questions – are useful to the practice of law but Dillon has found less carryover from journalism to law than he might have predicted. “Journalism requires great attention to factual detail. The law seems to be more about principles, precedents, and recognizing analogies. Even writing skills do not transfer as directly as one might imagine because the forms and tone in legal writing are so different. Basically,” he adds, “I’ve been on the same steep learning curve as everyone else. And it’s been sobering to realize that so many classmates are half my age but twice as smart.”

Dillon, who is fluent in Spanish and has a working knowledge of Portuguese and German, came to Rutgers–Newark Law to be able to represent needy immigrants and is still pursuing that plan. Last summer he worked as an intern at the American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrant Rights Project in Newark. “Rutgers alumna Amy Gottlieb and managing attorney Elissa Steglich, who teaches the law school’s evening course in Immigration and Naturalization Law, lead a great group of people there,” he reports. Dillon helped an AFSC lawyer by interviewing immigrant detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center. “There were frustrations, because often there was no legal relief to offer, but the occasional triumph made it satisfying. Last fall I got my first academic introduction to immigration law in Professor Gupta’s well organized Refugee Law class. This summer I’ll learn more about the workings of the Newark Immigration Court, again as an intern.”

As for post-graduation plans, “eventually, thinking past the bar exam, I’ll be looking for the right setting in which to represent needy immigrants. Too many families are being torn apart because some father or mother who lacks documents but cleans hotel rooms or washes dishes in the underground economy has been arrested for a traffic violation and, without a lawyer, can’t understand what’s happening to her in removal proceedings.”