Juan LaFonta is the son of a bricklayer and a public school teacher who still lives on the same street in Louisiana’s Second Congressional District where he grew up. A graduate of the University of New Orleans, LaFonta acquired his law degree from Southern University, opening his personal injury law firm of Juan LaFonta and Associates, L.L.C. in 2002. His practice has recently gained attention media attention for their unique advertisements- including their latest commercial and billboard, which is featured at the bottom of this interview- both having gone viral and been featured by Ellen DeGeneres, Perez Hilton, the Miami Herald, and The Washington Post, among others.
Outside of his personal injury law practice, LaFonta was elected in 2005 to the Louisiana House of Representatives as the representative of House District 96 (which includes the Bywater, Treme, Gentilly, the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny sectors of New Orleans) and became the first freshman legislator ever elected to a chairmanship when he became the Chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus in 2007, a position he held until July 2008. He continues to serve the people of New Orleans as a member of the House Commerce, Insurance, and Retirement Committees, and on the House Special Committee on Disaster Planning, Crisis Management, Recovery and Long-Term Revitalization, formed after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area.
The Pre-Law School Days
● What was your life like before you went to law school?
It was in pieces.
I was working two fulltime jobs and trying to do a sixteen hour summer course load to get out of college. I was living in Section Eight housing, and my only transportation was a salvage-titled Nissan Sentra. I was on an island socially and was looking forward to a life abroad working on international trade deals. I worked at a hotel and a computer programming company, and that prior year I had a near death experience in a car accident Mardi Gras morning.
● What did “being a lawyer” mean to you then? How did you come to this understanding?
I don’t really know. I knew it meant I would make good money and wouldn’t have to work in bricklaying like most of my family. I don’t think I had a full understanding of how entrenched it was in all walks of life. It wasn’t until I was in my first year of law school, where I met Chancellor Agnihotri and many African American mentors that I came to understand the responsibility I had to help my community and what it would take to do so.
The people in my world, in and around Southern University Law, the State Capitol, and the community really made me feel like they wanted me to win. At times the New Orleans streets were only showing me a path to death.
● What drew you to become a lawyer?
A junior achievement guy visited my high school told us about all the professions, and I asked him, “Who makes the most money?”
“Lawyers and doctors, of course,” he replied.
“I guess I am going to be a lawyer because I cannot dissect a frog to save my life.”
I also had cousins who were attorneys, and I saw how their influence was changing the cultural footprint of leadership in Louisiana.
The Law School Days
● What was studying law like for you? Was it what you imagined it to be?
I was learning how to study for real. At UNO there were always tests, but not demanding the level of detail and control of the subject that law school required of me.
LaFonte at the 1997 UNO Black Heritage Ball
Look, I tried to fit in. I was a bit hood when I started so I thought it meant looking the part: slacks, button-down shirts, combed hair…I didn’t realize that ponytails were a bit out of the ordinary, that normal folks don’t usually wear shades inside, and that confrontation is supposed to stay at a verbal level. The reading filled my days, and the writing consumed my nights.
● What stories, images, or practices sustained you while you studied?
How to outline, varying styles, underlining, drawing pictures, quote, acronyms, anything to remember every detail necessary to pass.
● Besides taking the bar exam, how did you transition from being a law student to being a lawyer?
I worked in the State Capitol, Family Court, and Law Institute. Those environments made me step up my game.
The Post-Law School Days
● How have you incorporated your legal studies into your everyday life (either in your career or outside of it)?
I have utilized it to make me a better leader, a better man, and a better communicator. I have gone from the neighborhood hardhead to the effective community leader. It took a frame of a young man without insight into THE PROCESS and transformed me into a man shaping the process.
● What do you tell people who ask you what it’s like be a lawyer?
It is not just about money. Yes, it pays well only if you work hard, but we are here to help those in need of help. God helped us to help the masses, and that is what we must do.
● One Last Question: What, if anything, do you want to share with our readers?
Being a lawyer is a calling. It is something that God has to wake up inside of you. You can strive to be all things, but to do what you’re purposed here on this Earth to do is mighty. If you are called to be a lawyer, remember, “to whom much is given much is required.”