Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 82 Perry Mason novels between 1933 and 1950. Hazel Rodriguez is pretty sure she read every one of them.
She was also a big fan of the television show that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966 with Raymond Burr as the high-minded and trustworthy attorney, but it was all that reading she did a bit earlier as a young girl that set her on her career path. A longtime Schenectady attorney with the firm of Grasso, Rodriguez and Grasso, the Mechanicville native reached her goal but in an unconventional way: She became a lawyer without going to law school.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer, but I couldn’t afford it,” said Rodriguez, 75, now a resident of the Pathways Nursing Home in Niskayuna. “It was also about lack of education, but that goes back to the money.”
The fact she was a woman wasn’t the problem, according to Rodriguez; it was her humble beginnings. Her parents divorced when Rodriguez was just 8, and she and her two younger siblings, Bill and Sandy, were put in the Hawley Home for Children in Saratoga Springs. While her father essentially left the family, her mother remained an important part of her life.
“My mother went to work in Schenectady, but she would take the bus to Saratoga each Sunday, and we would walk over to her aunt’s home to meet her,” remembered Rodriguez. “She was always there and always in our life.”
When Rodriguez reached ninth grade, she and her two siblings moved to Schenectady to be back with her mother.
“I was old enough that I couldn’t stay there, and my mother had worked hard and saved some money, so she wanted all her children back,” said Rodriguez. “So we moved down to Schenectady with her, and I started going to Central Park Middle School.”
Rodriguez continued on to Nott Terrace High School, but transferred to Catholic Central in Troy for her senior year and graduated in 1954. Then, with no money for college, she went to work.
“I thought about college, I had good grades, but we just didn’t have the money,” she said. “So my mother sent me to the unemployment agency in Schenectady, and they sent me to this workplace on Broadway.”
After two years of doing office work, a family member helped Rodriguez get her first big break.
“My Uncle Mort — Mort Miller, everyone knew him — knew a guy who knew a lawyer, and he knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Rodriguez. “He told me this lawyer was looking for a secretary and told me to go and apply for a job.”
Soon after Rodriguez began working for Nicholas Grasso in 1956, she discovered there was an avenue to help her reach her dreams of becoming an attorney.
“I must have heard or read something about becoming a law clerk, and that was a way to become a lawyer,” said Rodriguez. “But in order to be a law clerk, you needed to have a college education. I didn’t have that, but I was able to take a college equivalency exam, and that gave me the ability to apply to become a law clerk.”
Rodriguez’s aspirations didn’t come as a surprise to Grasso.
“You could see that Hazel was very perceptive and had the ability to grasp what we were doing,” said the 82-year-old Grasso, who still goes to the office almost every day. “She was very intelligent, that’s for sure, and she became very proficient as a secretary. She also became a certified professional stenographer, and when the opportunity came for me to say, ‘Why don’t you let me certify you for clerkship?’, that’s what we did.”
Rodriguez took that examination and passed and for four years continued to work with Grasso as a law clerk.
“I did a lot of the same things that I had been doing, office work and such, but I also had the opportunity to do a lot of research and work on cases,” she said. “After four years, I was certified and then had the opportunity to take the bar exam.”
She didn’t pass.
“I was disappointed, and I want to say extremely disappointed, but then I thought how it made sense,” Rodriguez said. “What did I expect? There were law school graduates who didn’t pass the test. So, I had to wait a while, about a year or so, and tried it again.”
This time, Rodriquez passed, and Grasso welcomed her to the firm in 1976.
“We had a lot of young lawyers in Schenectady in those days, and Hazel was so friendly, so astute at what she was doing, that a lot of them would ask her for her opinion on various areas of law,” said Grasso. “When we started doing a lot of municipal work, and we’re talking millions of dollars here because we’re talking about the construction of schools and things like that, Hazel was the one to deliver the bonding opinions to the bank. She was the one who closed the deal. It was very rewarding for me to see someone like her, without a college education, get to the point she did.”
Rodriguez, who was the second to last person to become a lawyer in New York without graduating from law school, was recently honored by the Schenectady County Bar Association with its President’s Award. Her health prevented her from making the group’s annual meeting, so instead, about 40 of her colleagues, including Grasso and Beth Krueger, executive director of the Schenectady County Bar Association, surprised her at Pathways.
“Our President’s Award is something we only give out when there is a very special person out there we think is deserving,” said Krueger. “When I met Hazel I was really impressed with her and her interest in mentoring young attorneys. That was very important to her, along with just giving back to the community.”
As complicated and as substantial as some of her work was, Rodriguez looks back most fondly on her work for children.
“I ended up doing a lot of Family Court work, and I was also appointed legal guardian for a lot of kids,” she said. “I represented children, it was pro-bono work and it was very rewarding emotionally.”