Months ago, after just completing a settlement, I received an email from a local Charlotte, North Carolina elementary school inquiring about my availability to speak at their career day. In a moment of weakness, thinking “there’s plenty of time on my calendar for this!”, I excitedly agreed. Frankly, I would have done it even if my calendar had been full…. then and now, the idea of getting to speak to children who are just beginning to understand what it means to have a profession, career and responsibility is both powerful and humbling.
Initially, I wondered whether I would speak as a lawyer or a business owner. Though my academic career supported the former, my days are actually split among management and practicing law. As I embrace my 16th year of practice and almost a decade of owning and managing a law firm, I am well versed and excited to share on both fronts.
Thinking it would be easier to identify myself as a more traditional lawyer, I began scouring the Internet on the best way to communicate what a lawyer does to second graders. 150 of them. When I asked my peers their opinions, they jumped to criminal law. The examples were concrete but there are so many other areas of practice that are equally impactful, memorable and inspiring.
When I asked my bright 13 year old niece, she said I only needed to wear a suit (which I hardly wear) and carry a briefcase with a lot of paper. She couldn’t really share with me what a lawyer actually does – only what one looks like on TV or how she imagined it. Frankly, this task took some real soul searching – did I mention that one of the kids in this elementary school belongs to me? Even though I have introduced him to a judge in a black robe and let him roam the courthouse with me, he still had no idea what I did for a living.
Since I am a family law attorney, I debated whether to talk divorce and custody. As I began to prepare for the big day, I was reminded of how happy I am to have chosen this particular field, how well suited it is to my personal priorities and what an impact I have made on families that I have served. Family Law isn’t just divorce; it’s helping families to create the next stage of their lives when it is necessary. Divorce may not always be the answer (and I have put many couples back together) but if all your children have seen is physical violence, arguments, threats and/or a household that lacks love (and like) then divorce may mean an opportunity for your children to change their definition of what family could be. Maybe the next chapter is to show your children what love and companionship looks like? Don’t we owe that to them?
On the flip side of my family law practice, aside from dissolution of a marriage, my practice encompasses family expansion, through assisted reproductive technology, adoption or blending families. It’s about helping our clients create the family structure that works best for them, that fits their definition of happiness – for themselves and, perhaps most importantly, for their children.
After much debate and reflection of my every day, I went with the basics of what it means to be a lawyer.
Lawyers are attorneys. Attorneys are lawyers. There is history behind the titles but ultimately it is one and the same. And despite what TV tells you, there are lawyers in many many fields besides criminal law and, NO, I am not an actor on CSI or SVU. Lawyers write the rules. Enforce the rules. Protect and help people who break the rules. Can it be any simpler? We can talk about blind justice and lady justice. We can talk about education required and the ability to have fairness, integrity and compassion. We can talk about the love of reading, writing and telling a good story (critical in my profession!). We can talk about criminal versus civil law and I can really confuse them when I start talking about real estate law and securities. But, in five minutes, I was able to share this basic premise and they were engaged.
I left them with their real first contract: Allowance Contract. Of course, I did not go into details of what happens when that contract is breached. And, of course, I gave them a stress ball with our firm’s logo (which later got revoked by the school administration). Believe me, despite the fun of my five minutes, they asked tough questions! I was relieved when it was over but I probably learned more than they did.
And for once, there was no preconceived notion that being a lawyer meant you love to argue.