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Legally Speaking


Issue: June, 2006
Author: Susan Chapin Stubson

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From Negotiating Clients to Negotiating Toddlers

“He’s throwing up and he has a temperature of a hundred and three.”

I’m sitting in a hotel room, seemingly thousands of miles from my flu-ridden-maybe-it’s-west-nile-virus-baby boy, listening carefully while the nanny calmly reports his stats.

“What did the pediatrician say?” I ask.

“Still waiting for him to call me back. The nurse said it sounded like RSV.” Respiratory Syncytial Virus. A parent’s worst fear.

“Where’s grandma or grandpa?” I ask. They are our “back-ups” when we’re out of town.

“I have a call out to both of them. When is Tim coming home?” My husband, an attorney at Brown, Drew & Massey, LLP, is stuck in another nameless town miles from our first-born and jammed up in depositions. Like me.

That’s when it hit me: What’s wrong with this picture? Why am I expending so much time and energy orchestrating child care via satellite with a cast of thousands -- none of which include me, by the way -- when I really should be at home with my baby? Permanently.

The decision to leave the law profession was, in some respects, the easiest decision I’ve ever made. In other respects, it was the most difficult. As a parent, even as a relatively new parent, I was struck by the immediacy of child-rearing. In the space of six short months of our little boy’s life, I quickly understood that a child grows at lightning speed. I’d already missed Finn’s first steps (alright, maybe I saw them later that evening, but I missed the first step); his first words (the nanny put the phone to his mouth, but all I heard was a lot of heavy breathing and what sounded like a Labrador licking the receiver).

I deeply felt that I needed to be home with my child, but I knew also that the transition from the practice of law to the practice of motherhood would be fraught with difficulties. First, there were the anticipated identity issues. Who am I now that I don’t practice law? Do I still call myself a “lawyer”? A “non-practicing” lawyer? Tim and I shared a good laugh the first time I saw myself identified as a “Homemaker” on our tax returns. Not because Homemaker is not as noble a profession as the law is. But as it applied to me – one who hates to cook, clean, sew, is not particularly talented in home design, and one who is thoroughly flummoxed by a new sport called “scrapbooking” – the title “Homemaker” is a misnomer.

Also, leaving my law practice was bound to have significant implications, some of which I realized at the time, and some of which were revealed later. There were the obvious considerations: the time, money, and energy it took to get through law school, pass the bar and begin your practice.

Other more subtle factors included the practice of law itself. There’s a reason we lawyers refer to it as a “practice” and I felt that, after five years in the profession, I was just beginning to understand it. I was just beginning to develop the contours of my own practice, to discover my voice as an attorney, and to develop relationships, rapport and credibility with other practitioners, clients and the judiciary. This was currency I knew I would likely forfeit entirely, an investment unlikely to draw returns. I knew this because I knew, instinctively, that a mother’s feelings for her child do not lessen after one year and that it would be a significant amount of time before I returned to the profession, most likely when our children are firmly embedded in school.

People often ask if I am interested in part-time work, in the interest of maintaining ties with the profession. Indeed, I have been approached a number of times since leaving the practice to write a brief here and there on a particular issue or to consider ongoing part-time work with a particular firm. Thus far, I’ve turned down each and every opportunity. Contrary to the image of a stay-at-home mom eating bon bons and watching “Oprah” every day, the practice of mommy-hood (at least in my house) requires my undivided efforts and, given the remarkable parallels between the practice of law and motherhood, I feel I’m maintaining my attorney skills.

For example, on any given day, I use skills honed during my five years of practice for negotiations (“I’ll give you an entire bag of Skittles if you’ll quit screaming at the top of your lungs while we’re at Wal-mart”); product liability issues (ever tried to open that plastic casing on a new toy in less than an hour?); time management, dispute resolution and constant “discovery” (as in… “how long has that sippy cup of milk been behind the couch?”).

Eventually, of course, I intend to resume my practice and I’ve discovered the trick is to remain “in touch” with the profession. To that end, I maintain my license and keep abreast of my CLE requirements. It helps that husband Tim is an attorney, who keeps me updated on significant legal “goings-on.” Also, the Wyoming State Bar is a tremendous resource. Our Bar Association means many things to many practitioners, but as an “active” non-practitioner, the Bar Association is my life-line to the profession.

I’m fully aware of the implications of leaving a profession mid-stream. It’s not unusual to read of women who have “derailed” their career path in order to stay at home with their children. It’s true, as one who has left the practice for an extended period of time, the odds of effortlessly jumping back into the game -- playing the same position at the same wages -- are not in my favor. Since I have been away from the profession, laws have changed, been amended, re-written, and attorneys and clients alike have come and gone.

However, I am offended by the negative characterization that choosing to step on the sidelines is somehow not the “correct” decision. The imagery of a train derailment suggests that I took a wrong turn or made a hasty decision in waiving my right to practice law in favor of my home life. We Wyoming lawyers often celebrate our profession as not just a “job” but truly a life’s passion. And so too, it is for me; my career path is my life’s path and for now, my emphasis is on my family.

I often tell my husband, in a variation of the well-known bumper sticker, “a bad day at home with the boys is better than my best day in my law practice.” Whereas the transition from practicing attorney to practicing mother was laden with uncertainty, it was a transition I happily made, and one in which I suffer no regrets.

Susan Chapin Stubson received a B.M. from the University of Colorado, an M.M. from the Eastman School of Music, and a J.D. from the University of Wyoming. She is a stay-at-home mom in Casper, Wyoming. She and her husband Tim have two boys, Finnegan Graham, 4 years old, and Meade Elijah, 2 years old.

Copyright © 2006 – Wyoming State Bar