Alumnus and Ojai City Manager James Vega credits law school with opening doors he never thought possible.
He wanted to become an English teacher. Instead, The Colleges of Law alumnus James Vega rose in the ranks to become city manager of Ojai, California, a small city nestled in Ventura County with a population just over 7,000.
“I grew up in a blue-collar family, and blue-collar in California is tough,” Vega says. When he was a boy, both his parents worked for the government in different school districts and did other city work. “I won’t say we were poor, but we were not wealthy by any means.”
It was his parent’s commitment to the community that shaped Vega’s affection for public service. So he studied to become a teacher, working hard to graduate with his B.A. in English—emphasis in education—from California State University, Channel Islands. However, during his final years of undergrad, he began taking a keen interest in a different professional field.
“My wife was a student at The Colleges of Law at the time,” Vega says. “I used to read some of her assignments and the work she was doing, which really interested me. Actually, it’s what made me begin to consider looking into law school.”
Vega realized that law could be a different way to serve his community, specifically as a public defender. He had been fascinated with the dynamic balance of legal expertise and interpersonal skills that the position demands. First, though, Vega needed to find a law school that fit his increasingly busy adult life.
He narrowed it down to two choices.
“It was going to be Pepperdine or The Colleges of Law in Ventura,” says Vega, adding that once he decided he would practice solely in California he had no reason to pay the additional costs he would incur at Pepperdine. The Colleges of Law offered additional benefits as well, specifically the professional connections the school has built throughout local communities. “The Colleges of Law really does have an amazing network, specifically in Ventura County. Even the judge I ended up doing an internship with was a graduate of The Colleges of Law. So I saw the network, I knew about the school’s reputation, and it just seemed like it was a great community of people.”
For Vega, everything was coming together. He leveraged his bachelor’s degree into a substitute teaching gig to help support him financially during his first year of law school. Then he began working in IT for the city of Oxnard as he continued working toward graduation.
“I worked full time the whole time that I was there, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Then I would get in my car and speed over to the law school and got there about 6:35 p.m. every day—probably a few minutes late,” Vega says. “Some other people may have great stories about all the different things they got to do, but my great experience was that I was able to be a full-time working adult while still being able to attend law school. That was key for me.
“If The Colleges of Law didn’t exist, I honestly don’t think I would have ever gotten my law degree. It would have been too much of a reach. I wouldn’t be able to afford it, or it wouldn’t be possible to get there every day while working. I just wouldn’t have done it. The Colleges of Law really is doable for a full-time working adult, and it provides an opportunity for people who otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to do it.”
But sometimes the timing just doesn’t work. After graduating in 2012, Vega passed the California Bar Exam and applied to work in the local public defender’s office. Although the Great Recession had officially ended in June 2009, the legal community was still reeling from its initial impact.
“People say the recession was over, but it wasn’t,” Vega says. He was put on a waiting list for positions with the public defender’s office. “I was number 620, or something like that. Everybody had either closed or was closing their private firms and coming to work for the government. The positions just weren’t available at that time.”
Luckily, Vega’s decision to pursue a legal degree opened other doors. An administrative assistant for the city manager’s office in Ojai had heard about Vega passing the bar. They decided to bring him into the office and give him a shot. The position was less than defined.
“I remember my boss asking me early on, ‘if I throw things at you can you figure them out?’” Vega recalls. “It goes to show, even if you are not an attorney, law school can open doors. You still have to work your butt off to succeed, but it can help open doors for you to pursue different things. It really shows people that you can problem solve and perform analytical thinking.”
Roughly a year after being given the opportunity to impress, Vega was promoted to management analyst for the city manager; less than one year after that he was promoted to Management Analyst 3, then assistant city manager. Finally, in June 2019, Vega was appointed as the new city manager of Ojai after serving in the position on an interim basis following the retirement of his predecessor, Steve McClary. He wasn’t an English teacher. He wasn’t a public defender. But he did achieve his dream of a career in public service, a door that his legal education helped open.
“I always think if I hadn’t gone to law school then I may have never gotten the chance to step up. I think I may still be in my original IT position,” Vega says. “Nothing about me changed from the day before I graduated to the day after, but my degree opened the eyes of others that had the ability to finally give me a shot.”
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