Port pilot John Betz ’96 discusses his non-legal career and the importance of education

  • Alumni

John Betz ’96 is a port pilot working out of the Port of Los Angeles, helping to guide giant container ships from around the world into the largest port in the western hemisphere. It’s the kind of a job that a lot of people don’t really know much about, where he basically goes out in a small boat, climbs up a rope ladder onto a ship, and instructs the captain and crew on how to maneuver the large ship from sea to the dock.

A port pilot is an essential job for a thriving commercial harbor, but it does not require a law degree. So why did John decide to spend three years at law school to obtain a law degree from UC Hastings, knowing he was going to pursue a career in shipping? John discusses how a tragic experience led him to law school and the importance of a legal education even in a non-legal career.

How did you get into the port piloting business?

When I was a teenager just out of high school, I went to a small school in the North Bay called The California Maritime Academy. It’s now a top-shelf institution in the Cal State system, but back in the early 70’s it was pretty much a trade school that trained you to work on seagoing vessels. After graduation in 1976, I began working on oil tankers for Chevron Shipping Company, based in San Francisco. I did that for 17 years, sailing as captain on a crude oil tanker running between Valdez, Alaska and Richmond, California where Chevron’s big refinery was located. I left the ships in 1993, and two weeks later I was sitting in a classroom at UC Hastings.

When did you first become interested in the law?

I was involved in a terrible accident while serving on board a ship up in Alaska in 1980. There was a fishing boat in distress that ran aground off Unimak Island, which is one of the first islands in the Aleutian chain. Their rudder was stuck and they couldn’t maneuver the boat, so we took them in tow towards to a cannery port a short distance up the Alaskan Peninsula. Soon after, the weather deteriorated with winds up to about 80 knots, and it turned into a “Deadliest Catch” type of story. During the night, the fishing boat sank with the crew onboard, and four of the five crew members were killed. As a result, Chevron was sued by the surviving spouses of the lost crew members of the fishing boat under a wrongful death cause of action in the Tacoma federal court. Chevron defended the suit and I had to testify because I was on watch when the boat sank. The case [Berg v. Chervron U.S.A., Inc., 759 F.2d 1425 (1985)] went up on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, where Chevron prevailed. That trial was my first inside look at admiralty law and it piqued my interest in the study of law.

Later, when I decided to leave deep sea shipping for something else to do, I thought, “Hmm, maybe law school would be a good avenue.” So that was the course I chose. One of the first things I did while learning to use the Hastings law library was to look up the Berg case. I was actually mentioned in the fact pattern. I later learned that opinion became the Ninth Circuit’s authority on the Good Samaritan Test and Rescue Standard in a maritime context.

Did you ever intend to practice law?

After I graduated from UC Hastings in 1996, I decided that I was not going to enter the legal profession. I never took the bar and returned to my former maritime profession working as a consultant for various cruise ship companies.

In 2002, there was an opportunity to work for Los Angeles Pilots and so I took it because I’ve always liked piloting ships. So I’ve circled back and am now doing pretty much what I started out doing, piloting ships for a living. But, I still use my UC Hastings education for quite a few things. I’m involved in committee work in the Southern California Port community, and I work as an expert witness/liability consultant in maritime accident cases. These activities allow me to keep my hand in the legal game a little bit, which is very rewarding for me.

How does your legal education benefit you?

My legal education benefits me in a number of ways. The California Maritime Academy gave me a good education, but it was narrowly tailored toward working on board ships. I felt that if I wanted leave the ships and work ashore, I needed to go back to school and supplement my undergrad education. I thought of getting an MBA, but back in the early 90’s everybody was getting an MBA and I wanted to do something different. My experience on the Berg case encouraged me to study the law.

My degree from UC Hastings helps me with all of the committee work and consulting work that I am involved with. I relied on my legal training when I wrote draft State legislation for tug escort requirements in Southern California. It also afforded me the opportunity to work for the state of Oregon on a legislative committee that was looking into the aftermath of the 1999 grounding of the Motor Vessel NEW CARISSA. I was able to work with State legislators and the Governor’s office on that incident. I never would have had the skills or the credibility to do jobs such as those without my legal education from Hastings.

I also participate in a lot of expert witness work. While anyone with sufficient experience can go to work as an expert witness, having both maritime experience and legal knowledge has helped me develop a vibrant secondary career as an expert witness over the past 20 years. I currently consult with Department of Justice Admiralty Torts Division and other private sector clients.

You do a lot of charitable work with the Maritime Academy, how did you get involved in those ventures?

For many years I didn’t really get involved with the Academy, but as I got older I started thinking that I needed to give back to the institutions responsible for much of my success in life. I began making annual donations to the Academy (and UC Hastings). Later, I was invited to sit on the Academy’s Alumni Association Board. Concurrently, one of my former classmates started a program in Los Angeles to help children from the challenged neighborhood of Wilmington near the port. This colleague created a program where he would take 10 or 20 kids a year from Banning High School in Wilmington to a training program at the California Maritime Academy to open their eyes to opportunities outside of their neighborhood.

Of these groups of 20 or so teenagers, he usually finds 3 or 4 that he thinks would be good candidates for the Academy, then helps them enroll. Presently, I think we’ve gotten 15 or 16 kids through to graduation, and, thanks to my colleague’s fundraising efforts, none has ever spent a dime on tuition. It’s a great program because I see these kids come out of these neighborhoods where they really have little opportunity, no one in their family has ever been to college, and they come out after four years at the Academy with a degree and making a good salary. Some of them start out in the $80,000/$90,000 a year range, and literally no one that they have ever known in their life has ever made that much money. This program is not only changing lives, it is changing a community.

Do you have any advice for UC Hastings students today?

When it comes to education, I think the best advice is that everybody should seek as much education as possible. The decision to seek a degree shouldn’t be approached from a cost-benefit analysis, like, “Will I make more money or how much will it cost?” In my mind, that’s the wrong way to look at it. I approach education from the standpoint of wanting to learn and for the love of education. And generally, I think if you follow that, the financial rewards will come as well. I’ve tried to live my life that way.

Since I graduated from UC Hastings in 1996, I went back to school in 2013-15 and obtained a Master’s degree at the California Maritime Academy, my third degree. Everybody asks me, “What are you gonna do with that degree?” And I say, “You know, at 63 years old, probably not much, I’ll probably just keep on piloting ships. But, what I have learned makes me a better person.”

My education at UC Hastings also gave me the wherewithal to encourage my son, Steven, to pursue a law degree at UC Hastings. He graduated in 2010 and is now working in the San Francisco City Attorney’s office. I’m super proud of my son, and if I gained nothing else from going to UC Hastings, having him follow in my footsteps was worth all the effort. So, I guess we’re double dippers or a legacy family now.