Jonathan Peña’s path to law school began in the fields. It was there that he learned empathy for others and the value of hard work.
Two decades ago he and his siblings were picking strawberries, peaches and chilis alongside their mother and grandmother on farms and orchards in Fresno and Sanger.
Today, Peña is a San Joaquin College of Law alum who practices disability law in Fresno. Specifically, he represents veterans and civilians in disability claims against the Social Security Administration and the Veterans Administration.
“We’re probably some of the happiest lawyers out there,” he said. “You’re helping individuals who are essentially denied by a system that they were counting on, a system that they paid into ... It’s the individuals that we help — that’s the primary reason I do this job.”
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Peña and four other alumni of San Joaquin College of Law in Clovis will speak at the school’s annual Career Panel set for 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 4. The free forum will allow the public to discover the diverse career opportunities a Juris Doctor degree can provide.
Besides Peña, a class of 2010 grad, panelists include Brandon Collet, class of 2009, deputy city attorney; Sally Moreno, class of 1995, senior deputy district attorney; Lazaro Salazar, class of 2003, immigration attorney; and Rene Sample, class of 1988, trial attorney.
Each speaker took a different path to their current career — and to San Joaquin College of Law.
For Peña, the desire to help others — while also making money — led him to law school.
“The reality is we’re hoping to make a good living, but in the process you truly do have the opportunity to make a change in people’s lives,” he said.
Peña is the third of five children born to Juana Peña, an immigrant from Juárez, Chihuahua, México. His first language was Spanish and he was raised among migrant families in Sanger and, for a short time, in El Paso, Texas.
“Boy, did we learn a different lifestyle there,” he said. “We thought it was difficult here in Fresno and Sanger; it was much more difficult over there. On weekends we would pass out flyers for income, we would sell tortillas, we would sell newspapers, we worked in the chili fields…”
Living in poverty and putting in long hours of hard labor as a child gave Peña a newfound goal.
“We’ve always had the goal of trying to succeed in life, but this added that extra layer of wanting to make a difference and help,” he said.
Always one to argue with his teachers — “not to be mean, I just wanted to get to the bottom of things” — Peña realized he’d probably make a good lawyer one day.
After graduating from Sanger High School in 2002, he made a deal with his mom, who was trying to learn English.
“We agreed to go to college together. I went to Fresno City College and she went to Reedley College,” Peña said.
He earned his AA degree and his mother earned her ESL certificate. Then he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Fresno Pacific University and she completed her AA in associate teaching.
When Peña set out to apply to law schools, he chose San Joaquin College of Law for its four-year evening program that would allow him to work full-time while attending school.
FPU’s organizational leadership program’s intense thesis component prepared Peña for the rigors of law school — to an extent.
“In undergrad I had a 3.7 or 3.8 (GPA),” he explained. “I was praying for Ds at law school and I don’t think I had ever felt that, ever.”
Peña is the first to tell people that law school is tough, but he also points out that San Joaquin College of Law is unique among law schools in the amount of support it offers its students.
“They tried to make it possible for us who didn’t get the chance to go to UCs or to these other Ivy League Schools like Stanford or Harvard. They really worked to make it possible for us,” he said.
The strong connections he made with his classmates also helped him take the plunge into opening his own practice when he was laid off in 2012 during a slowdown in caseloads. He worked for Melissa Proudian since he was 19 until after he passed the bar.
“I reached out to my classmates … and got the encouragement that I needed to make this happen. I thought it was a good plan but I needed to be realistic and see what others thought about it,” he said. “I decided to move forward with opening my own practice.”
Since 2013 Peña has built his practice through lots of late nights and weekends into a thriving operation with a full calendar.
“It’s going well. I’m grateful,” Peña said. “If it wasn’t for the conversations I had with my classmates, SJCL alumni, I don’t think any of this would have been possible. It certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the college itself.”
At the Career Panel on April 4, Peña said he’ll focus on telling the audience what it was like to open his own practice.
“I’ll be able to explain the joys and the difficulties involved in being a solo practitioner,” he said. “Whether you eat tonight depends on the money you were able to generate a month ago … but this gave me so much freedom in what kind of law I want to practice and how many cases I want to take on.”
He also wants others to understand that people with bachelor’s degrees in anything from math to animal science to art can attend San Joaquin College of Law.
“There is just not one degree that allows you to succeed in law school,” he said.
And as they’ll see from his story, people from any background can succeed, he said, noting there’s an underrepresentation of Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans in the legal community.
“We do need that representation,” he said. “I think it has more to do with bringing different perspectives to the legal community. It’s not necessarily the number of attorneys who represent a particular background, but rather how it could enrich the legal community.”
His message for anyone considering law school is this: “The financial investment is worth it. Not just on the monetary side, but the freedom and doors that open when you have a law degree. The opportunities are endless.”
What: San Joaquin College of Law Career Panel
Where: SJCL, 901 5th Street, Clovis
When: 7-9 p.m., Tuesday, April 4
How much: Free. Space is limited. Register at www.sjcl.edu/index.php/prospective-students/forums/career-panel