A Pace Law grad with an adventurous side

By Danielle Renda

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Enrolling in law school shows a certain drive. Amplify that by backpacking solo down Spain’s Camino de Santiago and cycling across the state of Nebraska and you have Leigh Ellis, a 2015 cum laude graduate of Pace Law School, whose drive is not limited to her vocation.

Ellis’ accomplishments were acknowledged at the Westchester County Business Journal’s annual Above the Bar event in June at Pace Law School in White Plains. During her time at Pace, she was active in the National Lawyers Guild and the Women’s Association of Law Students and helped found the Alternative Break Club, in addition to partaking in a number of internships.

But what the audience didn’t hear about was Ellis’ 250-mile hike of the Camino de Santiago — alone.

Leigh Ellis backpacks the Camino de Santiago during a rainy day in Roncesvalles, Spain.
Leigh Ellis backpacks the Camino de Santiago during a rainy day in Roncesvalles, Spain.

“I knew after starting law school that I would need to plan a trip to motivate myself to get through the year,” said Ellis. “When I wasn’t studying or working, I spent my time researching routes and backpacking gear. As you can imagine, planning for the trip provided a much-needed break from case law and coursework. In May, almost immediately after finals, I flew to Madrid, took several buses to southern France and began my hike.”

The idea to hike alone wasn’t planned. Unable to find a willing partner but determined to accomplish her vision, Ellis tackled the feat, meeting fellow hikers throughout her journey.

“My Spanish is limited, so I depended on body language to convey what I couldn’t express in words,” she said. “An example of this is the time I spent four days walking with a man who spoke no English. In an attempt to overcome our language barrier, we developed a very complicated system of charades. … I mean, have you ever tried to express asparagus using charades?”

Ellis also ran into a woman who was retracing her father’s journey on the Camino. As Ellis recalled, the woman’s father had recently passed and his daughter was using the Camino as a means to reconnect with him, spreading his ashes along the way.

“I had wanted to complete the whole hike, but it wasn’t possible because I needed to get back to New York City to start my summer internship and ‘busy hiking the Camino’ didn’t feel like an acceptable excuse,” she said.

Ellis also cycled across her home state of Nebraska as part of an annual, weeklong bike trip of approximately 500 participants.

“This adventure was the brainchild of my aunt, who had completed the trip a year before,” she said. “In contrast, my mother was the driver of our family’s minivan, which we affectionately referred to as the ‘meat wagon.’ We called it the meat wagon because my mom was ready and willing to pick up any cyclist who was feeling too tired or hot to complete the day’s ride. I am proud to say that I never utilized the services of the meat wagon, although I considered it because Nebraska is not as flat as you would think.”

Beyond her passion for adventure, Ellis remains focused on law.

“Today, I see that law is a means for effecting social change. This wasn’t always the case. … While in college, I assumed that social change was made possible by working outside of systems of power, which led to my participation in various grassroots organizations and community groups. …Today, I see my participation in the legal system as an opportunity to assist my clients in a way that I wasn’t able to prior to law school.”

Ellis is now a public benefits staff attorney at White Plains-based Legal Services of the Hudson Valley. Her job includes matters involving public benefits, from clients denied food stamps and unemployment insurance benefits to attaining emergency assistance for a person in need.

“We, as lawyers, have an obligation to serve our community and we cannot serve if our legal system is built to only assist and protect the privileged,” she said.

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