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Trivia Pursuit—How I Graduated From Law School and Wound Up Practicing Journalism

December 16, 2015
by Martin Snapp
scale with eyes

May 19, 1972—the day I graduated from Boalt Hall.

I wasn’t going to attend the ceremony, but I found out the day before that the featured speaker was going to be my favorite professor, Jan Vetter. He’d not only defended me successfully two years earlier when the university tried to throw me out for violation of the dreaded “time, place, and manner” regulations during an antiwar demonstration (translation: I was spotted leading a sing-along of “Yellow Submarine” during a sit-in at Sproul Hall), but had also given me the lowest grade I ever got on a final exam.

It was so low, he was required to submit a written explanation, and this is what he wrote: “Mr. Snapp demonstrates a remarkable command of legal rules and principles. Unfortunately, they are legal rules and principles that are not recognized by any jurisdiction of which I am aware.”

But I digress. I walked to the podium in my cap and gown, received my diploma, and then stationed myself at the exit, where I handed out leaflets touting George McGovern to my fellow graduates and their parents as they exited. Alas, McGovern got creamed by Richard Nixon in the general election a few months later, and all my UC Berkeley friends were totally shocked. After all, everyone they knew was voting for McGovern, weren’t they?

But I digress again. The reason I didn’t want to attend the graduation was that I’d never wanted to be a lawyer. But I didn’t know how to say no to my father, so the next week I duly enrolled in a prep course and started studying for the Bar exam.

Then I got the phone call that changed my life. It was from my friend Diane, who was working as a gofer at KCBS, the all-news radio station in San Francisco. The news director, a guy named Ted Feurey (pronounced “Ted Fury”—great radio name, huh?) was going nuts over the one thing he cared about most; namely, that the KCBS trivia team kept losing year after year in the annual Reno Barsocchini Trivia Bowl, to the team from the Reno Barsocchini Trivia Bowl, in Oakland.

(Another digression: Reno Barsocchini was a North Beach bar owner who had two claims to fame. One was the Trivia Bowl, and the other was that he was Joe DiMaggio’s best friend.)

Anyway, Diane piped up, “I know a guy who knows a lot of crap!” And to get me on the team, Feurey had to give me a job. That was the end of my legal career. And I never looked back.

In an exciting contest that went down to the very last question, we finally beat the guys from the King’s X in the finals that year. The question was “According to a recent Gallup poll, who is the most popular athlete in America?” And the answer was “O.J. Simpson.” (Needless to say, times have changed.)

From KCBS I went to Rip’N’Read News Service, which supplied “kicker” stories—the wacky, off-the-wall stories that your local TV station runs during the last two minutes of its nightly newscast to make up for all the depressing things they’ve been telling you during the previous 28—to radio and television stations, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and the Esquire “Dubious Achievement Awards.” (My most popular story was “Two out of three automobile accidents in Finland involve a moose.”)

Then in 1985 I got my big break when the Oakland Tribune hired me to be its daily columnist. (My editor was Wendy Miller, who is now editor in chief of California magazine. And one of my colleagues was Vicki Haddock, who now edits this magazine’s online version. So it’s like old home week for me here.)

And I’ve been happy as a clam not being a lawyer ever since—although I still get a recurring nightmare that all of this has been a dream and I’ve actually been a lawyer all these years. I wake up in a cold sweat and realize that it was just a bad dream and I’m not a lawyer after all. And I fervently whisper, “Thank you, Lord! Thank you! Thank you!”

But I’ve always harbored some residual guilt for taking up a space at Boalt that could have gone to somebody who really wanted to be a lawyer, so a few years ago I went back to Professor Vetter for absolution.

“Frankly, Martin,” he said, “we’ve always been prouder of our graduates who didn’t become lawyers.”

Martin Snapp is as enthusiastic a columnist as he was a reluctant lawyer.

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