For Elizabeth Spainhour, a career in law was out of the question. “Practicing law is what the Spainhours do,” she said, referring to her father, a judge, and two brothers, also fellow attorneys. “Naturally, I wanted to do something else.”
With dreams of becoming a writer, Elizabeth left her hometown of Concord, North Carolina, for Dartmouth College, where she pursued a bachelor of arts in English. After graduation came a three-year stint with a Boston publishing house before she returned home to become a master’s candidate and Park Fellow at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
While there, a class in media law prompted her change of heart about the family profession. “We studied the First Amendment and the necessity of access to information and how important these principles are to democracy. Suddenly, to my surprise, I wanted to be a lawyer.” The UNC School of Law soon followed.
Today, Elizabeth represents communications companies, large and small, in a variety of regulatory and business matters. Her practice includes transactional matters, such as buying and selling broadcast properties, regulatory matters, including advising clients on the myriad regulations of the FCC, and Internet-related issues, such as assisting clients with their website policies.
One way Elizabeth stays energized about her work is by teaching a version of the class that first led her into a legal career. Twice a week during the recent fall semester, she returned to Chapel Hill to teach Introduction to Mass Communication Law to undergraduates. “Teaching helps me remember the things that first drew me to the law and gives fresh perspective on the work I do for my clients every day,” she said. "It can be easy to get so focused on the details of a particular project for a client that you lose sight of what this is all about at a higher level. But teaching journalism students about introductory legal concepts reminds me that these television and radio stations that I'm working with exist to, and do in fact, inform and serve the public interest every day."
Teaching also gives Elizabeth the chance to offer advice to undergraduates who are still exploring their career options. With the passage of time, she’s come to appreciate that her own chosen profession didn’t take her too far from her original idea of a life in letters.
“A lawyer is a writer,” she said. “That is fundamentally true. And the way I put a sentence together still matters to me. How I frame an argument, or choose the right word, all of that is part of advocacy.”