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She skips bars and aims to pass the bar instead

Kathleen Holtz, 18, of Westwood is on track to be the nation's youngest licensed lawyer.

October 19, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Other fledgling lawyers may toast the news that they've passed the bar exam by popping open a chilled bottle of champagne.

Not Kathleen Holtz.

When results of the most recent California bar exam are released next month, the 18-year-old law school grad will be too young to drink legally.

And, as the youngest practicing attorney in California -- if not the nation -- Holtz is loath to break the law.

At an age when most of her peers are just finishing high school and heading to college, the Whittier native is already punching the clock at a Century City law firm.

She has no doubts about acing July's grueling law exam -- the final hurdle to becoming a bona fide lawyer. "I felt the bar exam went very well," she said.

That kind of bravado can be expected from someone who started college at age 10 and entered law school at 15. Holtz graduated from the UCLA School of Law this year.

People are stunned to learn she is only 18. Most assume she is in her late 20s. She is content to let them think that.

"Most of my friends are older," said Holtz, of Westwood. "Even when I was younger, I was told I was very mature for my age."

Other students at Cal State L.A., where she enrolled in an early entrance program, figured she was older than she really was. They had no clue that she only spent three weeks in first grade before skipping to second grade, or that she'd planned since age 8 to start college as early as she could.

By age 10, Holtz had by-passed fifth grade and was ready to trade middle school for part-time studies at Cal State L.A. She enrolled full time at age 11.

Holtz said she doesn't regret skipping high school.

"I was bored in school. I don't feel like I missed out on anything by not going to high school. I wasn't going to be bored eight more years in order to go to a high school prom," she said.

She graduated from Cal State L.A. magna cum laude with a degree in philosophy. At UCLA's law school, she was a Law Review editor and Moot Court participant.

But she wasn't old enough to drive or sign the lease for her off-campus apartment. She had to skip the monthly law school beer bashes and the Thursday night "bar reviews" -- in which law students traveled to bars around Los Angeles to take a break from the rigors of case law and classwork.

Dean of Students Elizabeth Cheadle said Holtz e-mailed her before starting school. "She said, 'By the way, I'm only 15.' I was somewhat concerned. She didn't want other students to know. She wanted people to get to know her as a person."

Holtz managed to keep her secret -- for a while.

"People thought I was 21 or 22," she said. "But I was 15." After a month or so, word got out that the class of '07 had a youngster in its ranks.

When Holtz was found out, some students gave her the cold shoulder.

"A select few were supportive -- it didn't change how they reacted to me. Maybe 90% were hostile. They stopped talking to me and were suddenly very condescending," she said.

But school administrators and her professors stood behind her.

"She came in and talked to me. I was very surprised," said law school Dean Michael Schill. "Law school is a very challenging environment for anyone.

"It takes a lot of gumption to go to law school at such a young age."

Professor Eugene Volokh, who graduated from college at age 15 but worked as a computer programmer for six years before entering law school, said Holtz actively participated in class discussions and was "obviously intellectually prepared" to keep up with older students.

"If you didn't know her age, you wouldn't even think about her age," he said. "It's easier for girls to look older than their age than it is for boys."

Holly Williams, now an attorney with the Latham & Watkins law firm in Los Angeles, was a third-year law student when she met Holtz. They remain friends.

Williams said Holtz did not dwell on the cold shoulders she received from some. "She blended in perfectly," said Williams, now 28. Holtz organized hiking trips and dinner outings for other students who didn't go drinking on Thursday nights.

"She handled it with a lot of grace," Williams said.

In California, where individuals must be at least 18 to practice law, the average age for bar admittance is 30. Spokeswomen for the State Bar of California and the American Bar Assn. said they know of no lawyers younger than Holtz.

Holtz's parents, Bradley and Jane Holtz, say they have been supportive of their daughter's decisions to go to college and then on to law school. They helped her settle into graduate-student housing before moving her into a studio apartment near UCLA.

"She wasn't your typical 15-year-old," Jane Holtz said. "She seemed so ready and was so anxious to go to law school. My husband and I talked about it and decided it would be interesting to see how that first year went."

They were surprised that "when word spread around the law school that there was a 15-year-old there, some of the students were on a mission to find out who it was," she said.

"Some embraced her and were wonderful to her. There were also some others who had attitudes."

Kathleen Holtz's age was no secret when an attorney at the Century City firm of TroyGould recommended that she be hired. She started work last month. Until she passes the bar, she is being supervised by a licensed lawyer.

"Today we were meeting and talking about how to prepare a case for a jury and Kathleen had some interesting ideas about using visual aids to make the case more understandable," said Jeffrey W. Kramer, who is 56 and heads the litigation department at the firm where he has worked for 31 years.

"The interesting thing will be in four or five years where she's in a position where she'll be supervising less experienced lawyers who are older than she is."

Lawyer Chris Lilly, 35, said only one issue arose when Holtz was hired.

"We wondered about child labor laws," he said. "She was only 17 when we recruited her."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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