A single mom and PI attorney tells you how she does it – and why2014 February
When I was a little girl, if you would have told me that at 35 I would be divorced, with two kids under ten, and living part-time in San Francisco; I would have died laughing. Then I would have asked… where is San Francisco? I had developed a specific master plan for my life in second grade, after a book report on Sandra Day O’Connor. Until quite recently, I was on my way to carrying out my carefully laid-out plan.
You see, I grew up in Manhattan Beach, and still live, albeit half the month, in this little beach town I love. It is a bubble here, where the moms are amazingly perfect in size xs Lululemon yoga pants, sports bras with tank tops, and Havaiana flip flops all day. The fathers all work in finance or somehow have retired at 50. Wikipedia says Manhattan Beach has a population of roughly 35,000 people with only 6.4 percent of 35,000 being female households with no male. I would venture to say .01 percent of that 6.4 percent are divorced, single, home-owning moms.
It is a very strong local community where everyone waves to you while walking to school. But to be honest, I feel quite awkward, as if I am wearing a scarlet letter when I drop the kids off at school in a suit. Our principal actually said, at my daughter’s kindergarten orientation, that if the moms picked afternoon studies they could make it to the mall and tennis before pickup. Part of me longs for unlimited time with my children and the luxury these other moms have. However, in my heart, I always knew I would be a better mom working outside of the home.
My plan started off smoothly, as my grade point average, and my inability to do math in high school limited my career path. Somewhere between re-taking algebra II, missing too many classes to run to the beach, and being suspended for a school prank, I learned by my senior year that I loved storytelling. I also learned that I had the ability to think very quickly on my feet, and that very little interested me other than boys and literature. During our last semester, while in a Parents’ College Preparation Class, my mother literally cheered when they said with my B average I could have my choice of state colleges. I honestly think she believed that after sneaking out way too many times, getting a tattoo, and my belly button pierced while in Venice, that my little sister was the only one that would find her way to college. I want to stop here to remind my mother, who also is an attorney and probably reading this, that I never threw a party at the house wherein alcohol and the electronics were stolen, and I never got in a fist fight… that was all my sister, Allison.
In college, my love for literature led me to Bachelors of Arts in English Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Loyola Marymount. I graduated early and realized that a Liberal Arts degree was for the most part useless. Quite quickly, I found myself at South-western School of Law at 19. In two years, I had a law degree and a shiny little card that authorized me to deal with monumental events in people’s lives at 21. My first court appearance was in Long Beach, and when I tried to use the attorney entrance line while still awaiting my bar license card, the deputy asked, “Don’t they give young ones like you learner’s permits before letting you loose?” I franticly showed him the newspaper clipping saying I passed the bar and my driver’s license. He laughed and let me in.
While in law school I fell in love with my ex-husband. We lived together, and then right on schedule, I was married at 22. Little Ema Grace was born when I was 26 on the eve of trial against the Orange County Transit Authority, and Jacob when I was 28. We bought a lovely home in the Tree Section in Manhattan Beach and settled into married life. By 32 I realized that my marriage was failing and that, despite my best efforts, I would soon find myself alone. What seemed like a simple plan was unraveling, and if I have to be honest, so was I.
A pause in the story
My narrative and life story stopped due to the trauma of the divorce, right there. I was stuck in a pain that was very real and debilitating, not unlike a death in the family. Friends I was once close to saw my situation as contagious, and playdates and dinners stopped. I go back to this point seared in time, when I think about what we do for a living. I think of my job as getting 12 people to relate to my client, to be part of the effort that picks him or her up from their event and allows them to move forward. I have a terrible need to fix and solve, because that brings me peace. If I can fix hundreds of people, perhaps then I, too, can be complete again.
After divorce attorneys reduced my life and finances into 42 pages of a lifetime of direction, called a judgment, I became the 6.4 percent. This was a deeply difficult time. I questioned whether I had done the right thing a million times. I didn’t sleep much and was generally numb at this point. For the first time since I could remember my direction was lost and I was scared. I was told to “clean up the mess I created” and it wasn’t talked much about then and isn’t now.
For a while I couldn’t say divorce without crying. I associated so much guilt with the word and I was ashamed to utter it in front of strangers. My whole life I had spent searching out and mastering every task I was given, but now I felt that I had failed in the most significant role I had, wife and mother. I was at risk of letting the demise of my marriage erode my confidence and conviction in the other areas of my life where I was, and I remain, a success; my role as a mother, friend, mentor, coworker, fierce advocate, and perpetual student-of-life. So I set about rebuilding and trying to get a handle on this new unscripted life for me and my now family of three.
I threw myself into training for marathons in what I believed to be a less-than-obvious escape from the pain. Eventually, I stopped running and dealt with reconstructing what was left of my perfect little life in this perfect little town. After holding a ridiculously large mortgage over my head for far too long, to secure the family home to maintain stability, I finally sold the property and bought a more sensible cottage for my children and me. The children had nightmares and struggled, although I moved just a few blocks away and kept them in the same school.
After the house was sold, I began interviewing for a new position after 13 years at my firm.
I joke that the only thing I didn’t change during this short time was my hair color.
It’s 6:30 a.m. on a chilly beach morning and Ema is putting her new earrings on from Claire’s, and Jacob is putting two different socks and shoes on. Jacob is going through a mismatch stage. I am convinced that his teacher believes I don’t own one pair of matched shoes or socks or that I have a severe allergy to laundry. In a charcoal suit, full make-up and heels I am funneling wet dog food into a dog dish. It globs into the dog dish with a slush, and I pause to think why is it my dogs beg for this, as if I am handing them the world. Then I remember they frequently also drink out of the toilet bowl.
I look over at Jacob, who has brushed his teeth, but is rinsing with a glass of apple juice he had with breakfast. (His nickname at school is “nature boy” because, when he was playing basketball, he thought peeing in a bush was better than stopping and running to the bathroom.) I consider disciplining him, but to be honest, I didn’t say brush and rinse with water.
Ema’s wearing so many colors that she could act as the crossing guard. I am madly dashing from here to there, trying to ensure that the kids are off to school with lunches packed, and I make the 8:30 a.m. office conference call. These mornings are the majority of my life, not jury verdicts, speaking at conferences, or writing articles. This is my idea of the practicing law and parenthood. I try to do my best, and hope no one is looking when I am not.
Without a plan, I am enjoying the mere fact that I am employed at a firm I love which provides me tremendous support to be what I had dreamed of, a mother and a trial attorney. I still find it incredible I ended up here, and that I have a boss who is such an amazing father, husband and mentor to his staff. It seems quite surreal. It must be fate that he survived a horrible motorcycle accident, I needed a job and a change, and he needed a senior attorney. I still find it ironic that I, who did motorcycle cases exclusively, had just tried one such case that he had passed on when this all occurred. It makes me feel that God exists.
After the death of my marriage and leaving my firm, I drew on all my resources and found strength and happiness. Most importantly, I found peace to practice the way that feels right and to help people. So, my advice to the younger me, and hopefully hundreds of women trying to have it all, is as follows:
• Never be afraid to be a parent as a woman trial attorney. As a parent, I believe my advocacy skills and work ethic are strengthened. I gave up on a regular sleep pattern years ago, so there is a good chance I will work a 10 hour-plus day. I mediate interfamily disputes daily, and as such have an acute sense of compassion, restraint and patience. In addition, it adds to the experiences I can share with clients and juries, thus allowing me to get them to feel and invest in a client. I often get asked what is so different about a female trial attorney; my answer sounds very similar to what I said above.• Define what “having it all” means in your own way. For me it means a happy medium in pursuing trial work and being a wonderful mom and a good person. Not everyone’s “happy” will be marriage, kids and a home. There is no set path, and once you get over the scary part of that, it is quite wonderful. Don’t be afraid to scratch it all and start all over if one path really was God awful.•Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to be vulnerable, if it is authentic. My kids listen not when I raise my voice but when I show them that their actions have hurt their mother or disappointed her, and I need their help. Also be prepared to give back help when asked, without strings attached.• Measure your success through what kind of parent, friend or partner you are. All of what we do means nothing if we fail in this regard. Think of the Atticus Finch ending, and those around us who find themselves living that reality. I came off the heels of co-trying the largest case of my career, a verdict only an elite few women make it to, and yet that isn’t why I feel I am succeeding right now. I was quite miserable then.• Take time for you. Always remember that if you are not at your best you will not be able to be your best. As a mom I lock myself in the shower for 15 minutes in the morning, and I can only faintly hear “MOMMA” 15 times. I also drive extra slow to pick up the kids. This is my “me” time.• Surround yourself with people who are open to ideas and sharing, and be open to drinking all that in. People who like seeing others succeed and who raise others up rather than put them down are essential. Never believe you have learned how to practice law. If you have any more than the essential ego necessary to do trial work, please check that promptly at the door. A great thank you to all the ladies that have guided me in this regard (Chris, Lisa, Jill, Dena, Christa, and many others).• Show compassion to everyone. My first med-mal case involved a hateful attorney from a major defense firm in Los Angeles. She had mastered the “nasty fax” to a tee, and discovery-dumped so well that it brought me to tears. I thought, “That woman deserves to be shipped somewhere the sun doesn’t shine.” I met up with her in Vegas 10 years later, where she indeed was shipped out to from her prior firm. It still makes me smile. Karma exists. I put that all on the transcript and had great fun doing so.• Never underestimate how complimenting someone can affect their morale. My boss is amazing at acknowledging hard work and achievement. I don’t need a marching band, but that little recognition has me up at four most mornings, working.• Have fun and get involved. Some of the best times I have had are being a trial attorney. It is engrained in who I am and how I see myself. I am proud of the work we all do at CAALA. I am happy to see us in the community helping others. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to raise a good trial attorney.• Be a great mentor. Every year I participate in the AAJ Mock Trial Competitions as a judge. I do this because it brings joy to my heart to see all these young advocates interested in the practice of law. I also do this because I love seeing what one word of advice can do in someone’s career. I also have a young associate, Ms. Mary Barnes, who I am proud to say I get to mentor and show her what the younger me wishes she was taught. It is amazing to see her flourish, and her ideas come to life. I hope she is a better trial attorney than I am, and that she will continue advocacy in the plaintiff’s bar.
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