AAron Jones is the paralegal/office manager/accounting guru for a private defense attorney in West Berkeley. For a long time I thought he was our neighbor because we saw him so often, but then one day I realized that his office is on our block and he’s there so often because he works really, really hard.
Jen: Ok, so how long have you been doing this?
AAron: I started cleaning that office with my dad when I was nine years old.
AAron: When I turned sixteen, the head lawyer said, “You’ve got something special. I can tell how hard you work. Do you want to come in and do a little legal assistant stuff?” So I started doing legal work, then paralegal work. When I turned nineteen, I became a paralegal. When I turned twenty-one, I became office manager and at twenty-two, I became accountant, doing all of the billing and everything in the office. Now I’m thirty, and still doing it all.
Jen: Oh my God. You grew up there.
AAron: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jen: Do you see where you’re headed now? And what is that, if you want to share?
AAron: I love the legal aspect of my job. Everybody thinks I should go be a lawyer, but that’s not where my passion is. I like the behind the scenes, hard work, all that. I want to write. I want to sit behind the desk and do the behind the scene stuff.
Originally, it was funny because my dad owned a construction business. Janitorial, maintenance and security, and I figured that was my path. That’s all I saw because I started working with him when I was nine. I was always told that the business was the family. When I got in high school, I met some amazing teachers, and they were like, “You are too smart and too hard working to settle.” So I got my Business Administration AA at Heald’s College while also working at the Oakland Zoo, the law firm, Hometown Buffet and running my own janitorial, maintenance and painting company where I was going around fixing stuff at Burger Kings and homes.
That’s when it hit me: I’m very organized. I’m very hardworking. I realized I could be a paralegal. I knew it was hard work but if I could balance everything I had going on, I knew I could be an amazing paralegal.
Jen: What is your favorite thing about work?
AAron: Since I’ve been involved with the law firm we’ve gotten about five people off of death row. That’s my favorite thing in the world. All of these people were guilty of the crimes, but I feel that society let them down because they have mental illnesses, or grew up in some of the worst situations ever. Some weren’t the shooter but was simply someone that was there and ended up getting the death penalty because they had prior felonies. That’s the most rewarding part. Unfortunately, those come few and far between because there’s a lot of work to get to that point.
The number two thing would be talking to some of these guys on the phone who are on death row or have really long sentences. You read their cases, and you read the information, and they seem like some of the worst people in the world. Then you talk to them, they’ve been in jail for twenty-five, thirty years, and you can tell how they’re more mature, how they understand their wrongdoings. They’ve just grown up. I think that’s part of what keeps me in defense because it’s called the California Department of Corrections Rehabilitation, but then you don’t give these guys a chance to show you that they rehabilitated with some of these long and life terms.
Jen: With all this, basically the work of nineteen humans, what gets you out of bed?
AAron: Growing up really poor, we moved every couple years, we were homeless and we stayed in a hotel or our church. My dad couldn’t sleep at grandma’s house because grandma didn’t get along with my dad, but the kids slept there because we didn’t have anywhere else to go. The thrive to be better, I think, is my big motivation. I want my daughter to have an image of a hardworking man. I have a wife that depends on me, who takes care of my daughter like no one else. I can’t just say, oh I don’t want to go to work today.
Work-wise, I think it has to be the responsibility factor. The knowing that for those victories that I love, it requires a lot of groundwork. Everyday is a day full of groundwork. You have to say today I’m going to do this, and this is so small, but at the end product, it’s all of those little small tasks that got you to the end.
Jen: Dude, it’s someone’s life. You’re like the midwife who I just talked to. Wouldn’t it be so weird if all these people I talk to, the mechanic, the midwife, you, if at the end of the day, it’s all someone’s life?
AAron: If you put it in this perspective, it is! The mechanic, if he’s off his game and he doesn’t put someone’s brakes together, it could be someone’s life.
Jen: Fair enough!
AAron: If I’m off my game and I forget a deadline or file late the court could say, “Appeal over because you’re late,” that’s affecting someone’s life. The freedom that I have that our clients don’t have drives me to work hard for them. The least I can do is go give back and get up and go to work. It’s not like I’m doing it for free.
Jen: What’s your least favorite part?
AAron: The list is long some days. Here’s an example, the case that we just recently got a off of death row. The man will be moved to another prison where he has more freedom. However, he is on death row with a bunch of people who he looks as his friends and family. He calls us, and he’s mad. “Why’d you do this? Oh, now I’m going to go to some prison where I don’t know anyone.” As rewarding as our victory is, it’s also extremely hard to get clients to understand what is best.
A lot of people on death row want to go from death row to freedom, and because it’s happened once or twice in our society, they have hope for themselves. It becomes difficult to explain to the clients how the law works. Also, the “jailhouse lawyers” tell clients their opinions and it sometimes counters ours.
They say, “Oh, well this guy said you can do this.” Well, this guy’s wrong. It can be very difficult, but if you put it in perspective, they’re with these people for twenty years. These people are their friends and their family. Then you wonder how many times you have listened to my friends and family over something that I know is logical.
Jen: Oof. Is that it?
AAron: Another annoying thing is billing.
Jen: Because it’s awkward to deal with money?
AAron: It’s not awkward to deal with money. It’s extremely time consuming for little pay. We have cases with the state of California, Tennessee, Montana, with the Mexican National Consulate. Each one of those courts within California have their own type of billing.
Because we have to bill to the court, there’s a lot more work to them. You say, look your honor. I think that this is going to take a hundred hours. They might come back and say, we’re only going to approve eighty hours. Then you’re put in a situation of do I just do twenty hours for free?
Jen: I don’t know if this is going to make sense to you, but most of my clients are in the tech world and they see the same thing. The tech team might make a very different choice about how they would build out your software platform, except for your specific boundaries. You know that you’re going to have to rewrite three years down the line and go through the process of getting funding to rewrite and justify why that is if you could’ve done it right the first time. It’s a similar picture.
AAron: It’s frustrating because we’re doing good work. We’re saving lives. We’re not sitting around the table talking about sports and then billing for it.
Jen: You have to reach for your inner diplomat.
AAron: Right. I’ve always just said I’m going to treat people the way that I think it’s best to treat them. I’m not going to judge anyone. Everyone’s going to have a clean sheet of paper when I meet them for the first time, and we’re going to go from there. I just think that you’re going to get so much further in life if you are social, compared to “I can know every fact in the world but I’m not social.”
I take the mindset that we’re going to know as many people as possible for every reason as possible because you never know when you’re going to need them.
Wow. I loved hearing about AAron’s work, the complexities and perspectives about law that I rarely have access to in my day-to-day life. Much admiration for the work AAron does but also the way he believes in it. Getting through billing and logistics is much easier when you can connect to a greater mission, don’t you think?
Next week, we’ll hear from a local chef… stay tuned!