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  • Writer's pictureSam Orlando

Citizens Ask: Are Costs for Outside Lawyers Tied to Augusta County's Attorney Skipping Law School?

Written by: Sam Orlando

Not All Lawyers Go to Law School

AUGUSTA COUNTY, VIRGINIA - The qualifications and effectiveness of James R. Benkahla, the County Attorney appointed in 2016, have come under intense scrutiny during the public comment section of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors meeting on February 14, 2024. The focal point of this scrutiny is the county's recent setbacks in FOIA court cases, including the significant Breaking Through Media FOIA case, prompting the county to seek the services of external legal counsel for defense. This situation has led to a heated debate over the justification of Benkahla's substantial annual salary (nearly a quarter million dollars for his department), particularly given his unique route to becoming a bar-certified attorney.

Virginia's Law Reader Program

James R. Benkahla's journey into law is notable for bypassing the traditional law school route, having instead earned degrees in psychology and business administration from Radford University before passing the bar through Virginia's Law Reader Program. This rare path to the bar, utilized by Benkahla, raises important discussions about the standards and expectations for significant legal positions within government, especially as it contrasts sharply with the conventional law school education route. Community resident Scott Clien took to the podium at that board meeting, demanding answers on why the County was spending so much money for outside counsel. Cline's questions ent unanswered by the Board.

Very Few States Permit Lawyers to Skip Law School

Virginia, along with a handful of other states such as California, Vermont, Washington, and under certain conditions New York, allows individuals to take the bar exam without a law school degree, offering a path known as "reading the law." This alternative, rooted in historical practices dating back to when formal legal education was less accessible, involves an apprenticeship or mentorship under a practicing lawyer or judge. While legal and legitimate, this pathway is less traveled today, and its recognition by only a few states speaks to the evolving landscape of legal education and the varying standards across jurisdictions.

The controversy surrounding Benkahla underscores a broader discourse on the qualifications deemed necessary for public sector legal roles. Critics and supporters alike are engaging in a nuanced debate over the merits of formal education versus practical experience, the value of a traditional law degree, and how these factors impact public trust and fiscal responsibility. The case of Benkahla, in particular, highlights the tension between traditional pathways and alternative routes to legal practice, challenging preconceived notions about what qualifies someone to serve in a critical legal capacity.

Is This the Reason the County is Hiring Outside Attorneys?

However, to answer the question succinctly, once Benkahla passed the bar exam in Virginia and registered with the Virginia State Bar, he gained the same rights to practice law as any traditional attorney who went to an actual law school. Why he chooses to pay tens of thousands of dollars for outside counsel to defend a FOIA case remains a mystery.

Reevaluating Hiring and Appointment Processes

As Augusta County grapples with these controversies, the dialogue extends beyond the county's borders, touching on a reevaluation of hiring practices, the importance of transparency and accountability in public appointments, and the standards we set for those entrusted with legal governance and defense. This moment of scrutiny could serve as a pivotal point for examining the pathways to legal licensure and the qualifications necessary to uphold the law on behalf of the public.

In essence, James R. Benkahla's tenure as County Attorney and the ensuing debate illuminate not only the challenges faced by Augusta County but also the broader conversation about legal education, qualification, and public service in the 21st century. As this story unfolds, it may well catalyze a deeper exploration into the values and criteria we prioritize in selecting those who wield significant legal responsibilities in our communities.

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