1 How a Skydiving Incident Propelled Me into Law School Six years ago, I nearly died. I exited an aircraft for a low-altitude skydive, but unbeknownst to me, in an effort to save time and fuel on the way to full altitude, the pilot made the decision not to slow down and level out the aircraft. As a result, immediately after exiting, the lowered tail struck me. I sustained numerous injuries, including broken ribs, broken vertebrae, both lungs collapsed, and spinal cord damage. My name is Christian Barton. I am currently a 2L at California Western School of Law (CWSL), and this is the story of how I was propelled into law school. After my skydiving incident, I was transported to a nearby hospital. The next day after surgery, I still had no movement or sensation below my waist. My attending physician approached and stated that I would never walk again. Neither my parents nor I were willing to accept the diagnosis. My father knelt by my bedside and grasping my hand told me You have to give your best effort, saying that if I did, he knew I would walk again. Indeed, my parents had always instilled within me the guiding principle that if I worked hard enough, I could achieve anything. At first, incapable of the most basic actions, daily I participated in multiple hours of physical therapy in the morning and several more in the afternoon. Every waking moment I kept trying to regain that which I had lost, and even while lying in my hospital bed, I concentrated on moving my paralyzed lower extremities. Slowly my rehabilitation progressed, and each day I made small but significant improvements, progressing from sitting upright unassisted, to making transfers from my hospital bed to my wheelchair, to finally wiggling a single toe. Every new victory, hard fought for but well worth any possible effort. After months of arduous rehabilitation, the date of my hospital discharge arrived. I told my therapist that for my final day, I sought particularly to challenge myself and he assured me that he had a surprise prepared. He rolled my wheelchair over to the waist-high parallel bars within the rehabilitation center and told me, Stand up! He clearly could see my resultant shock, for though I had regained some strength, I had not yet dared consider the possibility that once again I could stand on my own two feet. With a vice-like-grip on the bars and support from my therapist, I shakily rose up out of my wheelchair for the first time since my injury. Standing again, a heady feeling overwhelmed me that had nothing to do with the hypotension caused by my injury, but rather was entirely the result of attaining a lost perspective. What happened next surprised everyone, even my therapist. With weak and tremulous legs and admittedly some help, I took my first steps.
2 Steps I had been told were impossible. Although inpatient rehabilitation marked but the beginning of my convalescence, in taking those steps I felt as though I had earned my liberation. I have often considered how much harder would have been the rehabilitation which followed, had I never walked those first steps prior to discharge. Upon coming home, I realized that my life would never be the same. At that point, I was still confined to a wheelchair. While in the hospital I had begun to grow accustomed to life in a wheelchair, but I did not realize the huge difference between using a wheelchair in the hospital and using a wheelchair anywhere else. In a hospital, everything is perfectly designed for those using wheelchairs. Everything is at the right height, the doors are the proper width, and the furniture is all in the right spot. When I got home, all too quickly I discovered just how difficult life in a wheelchair could be. Moreover, the difficulties of life in a wheelchair are not simply relegated to logistical issues. Sadly, I rapidly realized that the social life for anyone bound to a wheelchair is far different from what I had previously known to be normal. People inevitably treat you very different when you are confined to a wheelchair. I will never forget going with my friends to visit a local consumer electronics outlet immediately after my injury. We waited in the long check-out line, at the head of which stood an employee directing customers to the next available register. With my friends to either side and patrons in front and back, I could not help but feel as though at the bottom of a well. Overwhelmed by the dull murmur of the many conversations being held above me, the temperature seemed to rise and each breath required more labor. With a rush of fresh air, the employee quietly directed the last patron in front of me to their register number, as I wheeled to the head of the line. My friends and I patiently awaited an open register, when one became available the employee leaned down and screamed at me, REGISTER TWELVE IS OPEN!!! Stunned and embarrassed, I wheeled away as my friends politely explained to the employee that I had been paralyzed and was not deaf. At that point, I came to the realization that when people now see me, they often see the disability and not the person. As you might imagine, due to the source of my injuries, a lawsuit and protracted legal battle ensued. Over the next four years, while continuing my rehabilitation efforts, I assisted my attorney in preparing my lawsuit. After almost four years of waiting, I finally had my day in court. Yet despite the defendant's apparent responsibility, the jury rendered a 10-2 defendant verdict. My attorney declared it one of the most shocking decisions he had witnessed in his many years of litigation. The jury found in favor of the defendant, largely due to a jury instruction that I strongly believe never should have been provided to the jury. Since the inclusion of the improper jury instruction
3 constituted reversible legal error, after the trial I immediately began my search for appellate representation. I contacted numerous attorneys. All were sympathetic and a few even offered to defer a portion of their payment until recovery, yet nonetheless each wanted a substantial payment upfront. I discovered a divide exists within the appellate practice. For those who do not have the wherewithal, appellate representation exists in the form of pro bono counsel, however in my own experience such limited resources are understandably devoted to issues involving civil liberties, criminal convictions, and other non-revenue generating litigation. As such, the victims of mishandled personal injury claims are offered but two choices, pay for their own representation or prepare their own appeal. Unable to pay for the former and expecting the latter, I began to prepare the appeal myself while continuing to search for an attorney willing to take my appeal on contingency. Thankfully, after contacting dozens of attorneys, I finally found one willing to accept my appeal. During my initial consultation, I explained the facts of my case, and what I believed were the grounds for appeal, after which my attorney stated her surprise that I understood the potential issues and could cogently discuss them. She suggested that I should sincerely consider attending law school to pursue appellate work, explaining that appellate work by its nature is particularly well suited for those with disabilities, especially now that research and filing can be done via the Internet. After my attorney's suggestion, I began to ponder the possibility of pursuing a career as an appellate attorney. During the preparation of my appeal, I discovered my own personal pleasure in penning this manner of prose, wherein fact is presented, and then interpretation argued. In the past, I had researched and written in depth about Yosemite National Park, and though I thoroughly enjoyed the endeavor, I felt something was missing from the act of producing such technical writing. During both high school and college, I had competed with my school's speech and debate teams. Although many found satisfaction from the dramatic events, I generally pursued argumentative events. In the process of writing the appeal, I discovered the pleasures of written argumentation. Much like preparing a nonfiction book, such as a hiking-guide, appellate work offers the opportunity for extensive research, while also providing an opportunity for the kind of creative argumentation normally absent from non-fiction writing. Moreover, whenever I pondered the possibility of pursuing a career as an appellate attorney, my thoughts went to the many contacts I made in my attempts to find representation and the frustration I felt as attorneys praised the merits of my case while politely refusing involvement. Unable to accept the status quo, I resolved to help solve this apparent problem. I believe contingency-based appellate representation can be provided to personal injury victims, as my attorney demonstrates. It is my goal that future victims of personal injury, whom believe that the judicial system did not adequately
4 represent them, will readily have contingency-based appellate representation available. With that goal in mind, and with the encouragement of both my personal injury attorney and my appellate attorney, I began taking the steps to apply to law school. After applying to several law schools, I decided upon attending California Western School of Law ( CWSL ). One of the primary reasons for my choice was the attention and devotion that the Student Diversity Services staff showed me when I visited. Amazingly, the first day of law school marked the five-year anniversary of my injury. While my rehabilitation had progressed significantly, I still relied upon a single cane for support wherever I went. With my five-year anniversary upon me, and the prospect of starting a new chapter of my life in law school, I decided to try something drastic. For the first time since my injury, I discarded all support and walked into my very first law school class without a cane. Unsteady, yes. Wobbly, certainly; but, despite my concerns of falling I managed to make it through the day relying only upon my own two feet! Despite the initial prognostication that at best I would be able to work only 20-hours per week out my house, I have flourished at law school. While I still am only capable of working as a part-time student, I am currently ranked fourth out of my class of 255. I have received the American Jurisprudence Award ("AMJUR") in half of the courses I have taken in Law School. An honor reserved for the one student that receives the highest grade in the course. This summer I was the Honors Teaching Assistant for CWSL's Summer Enrichment program and next trimester I will begin tutoring Civil Procedure. After a grueling selection process, I was chosen to compete for my school at the recent San Diego Defense Lawyers Mock Trial competition and was voted by my peers to the Chief Sophister position within CWSL's Moot Court Honors Board. Starting this spring, I will begin writing as an Associate for the Law Review. I was also fortunate to be elected by my peers to the Student Bar Association, first as a 1L Representative and then as the SBA's Representative to the San Diego County Bar Association. With my classmate Brittney Dobbins, the November 2012 ABA Law Student Spotlight, I cofounded the Law Students for Disability Rights student organization, a unique organization at CWSL, in that it is both a support group (for those with disabilities) as well as a substantive law group (for those seeking to pursue disability law). I was also fortunate to be selected as a research assistant for the San Diego Search Warrant Project, and recently promoted to project leader. The goal of the project is to examine approximately 1,000 San Diego search warrants from 2008, utilizing over 100 parameters to determine underlying
5 patterns within the search warrants issued in San Diego County. Finally, this spring I will be externing with the California Court of Appeal, 4 th District and during the summer I will be interning with Disability Rights California. And speaking of appeals, in September the California Court of Appeal, Third District finally heard the oral arguments of my appeal. Unfortunately, one day prior to submitting this article, the Court rendered it's decision. The court affirmed the judgment for defendant in full, having largely determined that we failed to adequately preserve our objection during trial. However, regardless of their decision, now, six years later, I am preparing for the next chapter of my life, as I prepare to become a practicing attorney. I confront my next challenge with enthusiasm and confidence, bolstered with the knowledge and lessons gained from living with and overcoming my disabilities.