Alumni in alternative careers: An interview with Dmitry Portnoy (JD ’13)

February 14, 2017 | By Alexa Brown —Content Producer and Interviewer for Legal Counselor and writer of the original script Saint Judy, Pepperdine alumnus Dmitry Portnoy (JD ’13) reflects on his favorite Pepperdine Law professors, how they influenced his present day career, and offers a bit of advice to current law students.

How has your education at Pepperdine Law influenced your career path?

I have a Masters in Film and my Juris Doctor from Pepperdine, which influenced me in several ways. One is that I’m making educational videos for lawyers. In a way that is unlike anything else available, because typically on demand videos are done by hiring attorneys and having an outline and speaking into the camera for a certain amount of time. What we [at Legal Counselor] do is different. We interview lawyers spontaneously, letting them talk about what’s on their minds, what they’re interested in, what keeps them up at night. After we did 10 or 12 of those interviews I saw that there were patterns. All these different people in different stages, fields of law, and with different personalities were all confronting the same issues in slightly different ways, yet with lots of agreement.The obvious next step was to put them together and group them in terms of subject matters, because isn’t it fascinating to see two dozen lawyers talk about understanding the client when their clients all come from different walks of life? By seeing those who are teaching or modeling a certain approach, you see similarities and can absorb their approach and think “I can try this.” The more lawyers and judges you interview, the more likely someone will bond and relate to them. The best compliment I’ve heard, is that they are watchable. To me that’s very important. I mean, this is not Transformers, this is not meant for entertainment, but if it holds your attention when you’re watching these, you are going to learn. I needed both my film production experience and also my JD to do this. My legal experience tells me when something is important or when things set off a bell and needs to be followed up on. I have a trick I learned via my law school training, as an interviewer, and that’s when something sets off a bell, I use the exact and precise words they used. That attention to language is something law school taught me and using their precise words so often unlocks something.  There is a reason why they used those exact words, and when you give those back to them they share more than I ever expect to hear.

I am currently also working on a separate project that has to do with Judy Wood. She was my first interviewee, and she did it as a personal favor to me. She’s also a graduate of Pepperdine and I interned with her on a few cases. She’s an Immigration lawyer who tried a very important case with the Ninth Circuit Court that changed the law, and I wrote a script that’s currently in reproduction called Saint Judy. It’s based on that true court case story, and I think it is going to make a difference in how people understand immigration and law, both US and International. It’s a really important story to understand involving human beings and rules and how the courts operate.

What tools did you acquire from Pepperdine Law that you found imperative to your career in the entertainment industry?

It allowed me to distinguish myself as someone with a skill to tell a particular kind of story. Law is, I think, a bigger mystery than medicine. What people expect doctors to do and what their day is like and the challenges they face, is kind of on point.  But with lawyers, they don’t understand how courts really function, or what really is an issue, or how to apply facts to the rule rather than rules to facts. One of the reasons that the law is confusing is that in medicine they use Latin. They use strange terms so when a doctor names a disease or a procedure, it will sound unfamiliar. In the law we use plain english, but that plain english has a very specific meaning. For example, “rational basis” sounds plain but actually has a very specific definition. The words are used the way the courts use them and people aren’t as aware that it is a specific issue and argument being made because it’s in english. Now that I understand what the language and meaning is, I can write both for lawyers about what they need to know, and also for the general public. I can show accurately how a trial functions in a way that will sink in. Pepperdine taught me the meaning so that I can write the courtroom scene telling the “why” and the “meaning” and the “issue”. I don’t use the language in a decorative way. Precision helps tell a story. The sharper your scalpel is, the more carefully you can cut.

You recently wrote an original script that was eventually picked up and adapted. What was Pepperdine’s connection to the storyline?

Judy Wood is also a graduate of Pepperdine, which is how I met her. I interned for her on several cases and they touched me deeply because I am an immigrant myself. We [my family] came from Kiev. We were statutory refugees and we fit the law of asylum. I feel very grateful that my mother and my father and I were offered asylum by the United States Congress. I can’t imagine what my life would be like otherwise. But a lot of people have to fight for this in the courts, and fight hard. I had no idea what that meant intellectually, emotionally, or psychologically, in people’s lives and for their lawyers, until I worked for Judy. The case the movie is based on is one Judy talks about a lot, and the first time I heard it I thought, “this is a story that needs to be told.” It’s incredibly exciting. What draws me personally to this is that it doesn’t have villians. It’s a story about good people trying to resolve a conflict. It holds an enormous amount of suspense and tension because good people disagreed about this issue. The trial judge was herself interpreting the law in the way that hundreds of judges understood it, until the 9th Circuit said otherwise. After that no one challenged the law; it was a genuine change. This almost 2 decade old case that had never been successful before, now was. There’s three powerful and intelligent women: a strong and horrifically oppressed refugee asking for justice on her side; her lawyer who is a psychologically probing woman, a champion, someone who sees weakness and zeros in on it; and a judge who loves the law and is ruling maybe even against her heart’s wishes. There are a lot of reversals and triumphs. This script also gave me a chance to incorporate elements from things I’ve seen from dozen of Judy’s other cases, to demonstrate and tell as much of the truth as possible. Writing it was an emotional process for me. Reading the script is an emotional process. And I hope watching will be an emotional and enlightening experience for people who don’t quite understand how the system works and who the people are who are seeking refuge into this country. I want it to open eyes and hearts. There are no are bad guys, there are good people disagreeing about law, and seeing conflict resolved in courts.

What is your fondest memory from your time at Pepperdine Law? Favorite faculty member?

Selena [Brandt] who taught legal writing and research in my first year, recommended me to Legal Counselor and I am so happy she recognized an opportunity. It was just a website then with a mandate for lawyers, and they wanted visual content–it all took off from there. I am so grateful to her for remembering that I went to film school and recognizing that I might have an interest. I’m grateful to Barry McDonald from Copyright Law, who is not at all what I thought he would be. He taught me that the law is very different from what people think it is and there’s actually reasons for why it works the way it does. I am grateful for Roger Cossack who was an ESPN [ legal analyst] because he explained quite specifically why things work the way they do. That’s not just educational, but comforting and empowering. Harry Caldwell is the greatest storyteller I know of and he actually taught me not just about the law, but about communicating. Communicating in a simple way, in a way that draws the other person in and makes the other person care about what you’re saying, not about yourself. There’s a lot of Caldwell in how I’m producing the videos and how I wrote the script [Saint Judy]. I was able to forget myself. I wasn’t trying to put a personal stamp on it or make it interesting–I was trying to make it real to the other person and to the reader and the viewer. Caldwell taught me by example that you really can erase the wall by being selfless and relentless analytical, and that there’s no contradiction between those two.

Is there any piece of advice you’d like to offer current or recently graduated Pepperdine Law students?

Yes, but it may seem odd: Don’t look for shortcuts. I think their are a lot of fields where you look for shortcuts. In computer science or business, you’re looking for efficiencies to simplify a process or skip steps. I don’t think the law is one of those. I got into trouble every time I wanted to skip a step or draw an analogy between fields. Or thinking, “oh, this detail is not incredibly important.” It’s all important. Like with writing versus reading. I learned to read three years before I learned to write because you can look and kind of know and move on. But when I was writing, I kept looking for shortcuts. Did I really have to shape every single letter? I mean surely there is some shortcut with writing? But it turned out there are none! You actually have to shape every letter. You have to write one word, then the first sentence and second sentence, and so on. You communicate by doing all the steps and the law, like any creative process, requires that. So yes, you have to take it one step at a time. You can’t skip things. You have to research, read all the cases, and look at all the facts in every case when writing a brief. The end product seems really simple, but it’s the end stage of a hugely complicated process of thousands of steps and every one had to be done right. If it’s not hard or doesn’t seem impossible, you’re not doing it right.

Another thing, is this notion of good people disagreeing. It is something that Pepperdine helped instill in me. This idea that the person who is disagreeing with you is not a villain or bad person, that is very much a philosophy at Pepperdine that is vital and is communicated strongly, and I’ve found it is extremely valuable.

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