‘I See You’
Joanna Adu connects with clients caring for loved ones with disabilities
Published in 2023 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
By Natalie Pompilio on May 8, 2023
During college, Joanna Adu decided against a legal career. Five years post-graduation, she was living in Seattle and working in retail banking, the single mother of a son with a disability. At one meeting, a branch manager posed this icebreaker: What would you do if you had no fear of failure?
“I didn’t even have to think about it,” remembers Adu, 39. “I said I would go to law school.”
She had begun reconsidering the career a few months earlier as she was weighing opportunities for her preschool-age son. Stanley, now 13, has autism spectrum disorder. He’d been accepted into a Seattle Public Schools early intervention program, but navigating the general education system was complex.
“I was starting to understand what this lifelong journey would be like for my son and the resources he’d need,” she says. “It ultimately brought me back to wanting to go to law school to help parents like myself.”
An incident Adu experienced during her third year at Seattle University School of Law reaffirmed her choice. Stanley had left his first-grade classroom and crossed a busy street, where employees at a nursing home found him in their parking lot. School administrators did not call police or immediately notify Adu.
“I don’t know how he crossed that street by himself,” Adu says. “Everything that could have happened, you have to keep that out of your mind. But this could have easily ended in a different way.”
Soon after finishing law school in 2016, Adu packed up her son and their guinea pig and began a cross-country drive to accept a one-year appellate clerkship in New Jersey with the Hon. Susan L. Reisner. She studied for the state Bar along the way.
“In the moment, I didn’t know how crazy it looked,” she says. “It’s baby steps you’re taking. You don’t know what the ultimate outcome will be, but you’re doing what feels right and heading in the right direction. My compass has always been what’s best for my son.”
Adu, born in Alaska to a Ghanaian father and a Japanese mother, made the move because she’d lived in New Jersey before going to law school and had a good first impression of its public education services.
After completing her clerkship, Adu entered private practice with Somerville’s Lyons & Associates. The firm offered the flexibility she needed as a single mom. Once, for example, while she was working from home, she had to unexpectedly end a call with her supervising attorney because Stanley was being loud.
“My supervising attorney was completely understanding, and I was never made to feel bad for being there for my son,” she says. “Much like the right school environment has made all the difference for my son’s development, the right type of work environment has made all the difference in my ability to thrive in my legal career.”
When Adu started at the firm as an associate, its primary focus was matrimonial and family law. Five years later, she’s a shareholder/partner who has carved out a practice focused on wills, trusts and estates. Guardianships and special needs trusts have become a niche.
“Sometimes clients retain me and don’t finish an estate plan for years, but I never want people to feel pressured or embarrassed, and that stems from my personal life and appreciating non-judgmental environments,” she says. “When I go out with my son, the fear of judgment if he reacts a certain way or lashes out is the most pressing fear. I do nudge [clients] gently, but in a patient and caring manner. We’ll get them there eventually.”
Adu’s life experience gives her advantages on the job. She understands how high emotions can run when a divorced couple sharing guardianship of an adult child disagree over care options, and how intimidating end-of-life planning can be, especially when there’s a child with a disability to be considered. She recommends that guardians have prepared a letter of intent, which details a special needs child’s daily preferences. The one she prepared is 20 pages long and includes everything from Stanley’s favorite foods to his preferred clothing.
“The knowledge I bring as a special needs parent is unique, but even more important is the compassion and empathy and understanding,” Adu says. “On any given day, when I walk into the office, no one knows what I’ve dealt with before I got in, if my son’s had a good morning or a bad morning. I look at these parents and say, ‘I see you.’”
On Saying ‘Yes’
Adu is a big believer in volunteering.
“If it weren’t for the nonprofit organizations that step in and fill in really critical gaps, I don’t know where I’d be,” she says. “I think every special needs parent would agree.”
Adu serves on the board of directors for SERV Connect, which provides assessment, support and stabilization services for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are facing residential crises. She has also offered free seminars on guardianship for parents of Stanley’s schoolmates.
“I say yes first and then I figure out how to do it later,” she says. “I’ve learned that what I’m capable of, and what I thought I was capable of, are totally different.”
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