Alumni Q&A with Hon. Cynthia Rayvis '85, Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles
Q: What was your path to law school?
A: I was an elementary school teacher. I obtained a master's degree in education and thought I was through with school. When my children were three and nine years old, I started looking for something new to try. When I went to college in the mid-sixties, it was unusual to study anything other than education and I really didn't explore anything else. At the time, law school just never occurred to me. That's the generation I came from. But I began thinking about it and exploring my options. I knew that I wanted to go to law school part-time because my youngest was still so young.
Q. What attracted you to the PLEAS program?
I looked at the part-time law programs in Los Angeles and was attracted to two of them, including Southwestern. I was debating which one to attend when I got a call from Southwestern about the PLEAS program in the summer of 1981. The person told me, "We have an experimental program for students to attend part-time, but it would be during the day. No one's ever done this before. Would you be interested?" I immediately agreed to it and I never looked back.
I decided to go to law school part-time, not having any idea what I would do with my degree, or whether I would practice law. I thought that going to law school would be really interesting. I didn't realize how much work it was going to be.
The first day of law school, I met two other people in the program. The staff, including the dean of students at that time, Sandra Cooper, watched over us. They bent over backwards to make our experience wonderful. When there was a required course that started at 9 a.m., we said, "You know, we'd really like to take the class at 10 because we need to drop our kids off, we need to do things, and if you're making this for parents, can you make it so that all of our classes are between 10 and 2?" And they said, "Sure." And next thing you know, there was a Torts class at 10. As the semesters went on, we rearranged our schedules a little bit so that we didn't have to go in every day. The three of us decided that we would go in three days and one of those three days we were there from 10 until 9:30 p.m.; we stayed and took a night class. That worked better for us. And each semester we changed it. But everything was offered to us between 10 and 2. Because it was a new program, we were just treated wonderfully.
At the same time, we had the experience of being in with other people, the full-time students. Most of them had no clue that we were part-time. I just found it to be a wonderful experience. I have very fond memories of everything but studying for exams.
What was really nice, I can't stress enough, is that they always listened to our feedback. I go back periodically. There was a reception for all of the PLEAS graduates for the first time five or six years ago, and it was then that I realized just how successful the program has been. There was also a reception recently, and I went back and spoke with some students. It's a terrific program.
Q: What advice would you give parents in law school?
A: I would emphasize that it's still a lot of work. I know there are people who work full-time and go to law school at night and have families, and I don't know how they do it. Those of us who are fortunate enough to study part-time during the day and not have to work are very fortunate.
I tell prospective continuing students, "It's more work than you think it's going to be. When it comes time to study for midterms and finals, it's just like it was in college." That's what you have to do. It's extremely helpful if you have other people who can support you during that time. During my time in the PLEAS program, I was doing a lot of carpooling for my older daughter, and then for my younger daughter as time went on, because it was a four year program. And I had a book in my car all the time, waiting for me. Your studies are always on your mind. It's a big commitment and people need to know that.
Q: Which were the most important courses and professors in your studies? Did you have any mentors?
A: I loved my criminal law courses; I found them to be fascinating. My professor in almost all of them was Paul Flynn, who later became a judge; he retired from the bench within the last few years. I remember one of my first classes my first semester was Torts with a brand-new, very young professor named Robert Lind, who I know is still there. That was the first class that he taught and he was good. Catherine Carpenter was a huge presence then. I never took a class from her. It just didn't happen and I don't know why. I think it had to do with scheduling. I know her, we talk when we see each other, and I know she's done an amazing amount for Southwestern. So in that way she's definitely been a presence.
Q: What is your fondest law school memory?
A: My favorite law school memory is being with my friends and having us pull each other up when things got down. We all had young kids. I was very close to one classmate in particular: Nancy Lemkin, who passed away two years ago. We spent every minute together at Southwestern. We never took a class apart from one another and we studied for finals at each other's homes. I loved the feeling of learning a whole new aspect of information that I had never known before. And I learned to think a different way. In law school, your professors ask questions of you in a certain way. Gradually you learn to think differently and to analyze things differently. I think that's been extremely helpful to me.
Q: Did you know that you wanted to go into criminal law before you started law school?
A: Oh, I didn't even know if I wanted to practice law. I just wanted to get a law degree and see what I could do with it. After my second year, I externed with the Public Defender's office and after my third year I externed with the DA's office. I realized that I liked the prosecutorial aspect more than the defense aspect. I never considered going into anything other than criminal law. And again, the only reason I did something else during those few years after law school was because it was the only part-time job I could get, though I certainly enjoyed it. What I enjoyed most those few years was every time I got to go to court for a summary judgment motion or anything like that. I loved making court appearances and I realized that's what I wanted to do. I was amazed because when I started out in law school, I said, "I certainly never want to go into a courtroom." Now that's where I spend every day. And I love it.
Q: What suggestions do you have for students interested in criminal law?
A: Certainly take every criminal law and law procedure class you can take. Do an externship or clerkship with the DA's office or the public defender's office. It's great experience. After you take Evidence, I believe you can be certified in the DA's office to do preliminary hearings, which is like a little mini-trial. It's wonderful experience. Observe a trial if you have time. Go observe courtroom proceedings; see if you like what you see and if you want to do that.
The other thing I did is I called people whose names I got from friends: both deputy district attorneys and deputy public defenders. I called and I talked to them. I asked them everything about their jobs. I wanted to know everything I could. And that's how I made my decision.
Q: Describe how your law career evolved.
A: I started off as a law clerk working for a sole practitioner who did civil work - tort litigation, plaintiff tort work, personal injury, medical malpractice. I did that for four years part-time because I wanted to wait until my youngest was a little bit older. She was twelve when I started working full-time. And again, I had the luxury of being able to do that because my husband was supporting me. So I worked part-time doing civil work.
During law school, in the summer, I externed in the D.A.'s office. I knew that's what I wanted to do, but there weren't part-time jobs. So I waited. My first full-time job as an attorney was 1990, when I was 41. I worked in the District Attorney's office for twelve years. At the time, people weren't joining the DA's office and staying there for their careers, which they are now. When I applied to be a judge, I think the average age was mid-to-late 40s, so I was just a little older. I was just about 55 when I became a judge.
Q: What did you like most about working in the District Attorney's Office? What was most challenging?
A: It was very challenging. It was very exciting. I always felt, from the first criminal law class I took, that that was the essence of law. Every day was different. I loved that job, it was a great job. I happen to have found a job that was a little bit better, but that was just a terrific job.
From the time I joined that office, there was terrific camaraderie. Talking to other attorneys about your issues was really fun. I loved doing trials. It's a wonderful feeling to be an advocate for a side, to argue that side, and to be ethical.
I always felt that being a Deputy District Attorney, you had a lot of power because if you didn't believe in a case, if you didn't feel you could prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, you could dismiss it. You had the power to do right. And I loved preparing for cases, looking at every little detail, and going out to the crime scenes and talking to witnesses.
I spent five years in the DA's office prosecuting gang members accused of murder when I was is in the Hard Core Gang Division. That was very challenging because I was working with victims or families of dead victims and dealing with them. It was very sad. I tried to make sure justice was done.
Q: When working in that kind of environment, is it hard to separate your personal life from the issues you deal with at work?
A: I could do it as long as I wasn't in trial. When I was in trial, that trial was on my mind 24 hours a day to the point where I had a little tape recorder next to my bed so that if I woke up in the middle of the night thinking of something, I could record the thought. When I wasn't in trial, I could leave it and come home and enjoy my life.
Q: How did you transition from your work in the DA's office to your work as a Superior Court judge?
A: I had been an advocate for one side or the other for my entire legal career. Then I was sworn in, found myself on the bench, and was supposed to be an impartial jurist. It does not happen overnight. It can't. I had spent all those years advocating for one side or the other. Once, early on, I had a preliminary hearing in which I was supposed to evaluate whether there was enough evidence to hold the defendant to answer to the charge. I found myself asking questions of the witness. I read the transcript and I thought to myself, "I've taken over the prosecutor's role here." So I started paying attention to that and realized that I was no longer an advocate. I realized that I had absolutely no stake in the outcome.
Q: What are you interests and hobbies outside of the law?
A: I like to travel when I have the chance. My favorites are Turkey, Southeast Asia, and the Galapagos Islands. I play golf - terribly, but I enjoy doing it. I like to ski.
And I've just become a grandmother, so that's my new passion. My granddaughter lives across the country, so that's going to be my new thing. I love to read and I belong to a book club and I do a lot of reading.
Life is busy.