Kit Petersen’s Magic Touch
Though she keeps some ‘fairy dust’ on hand, her real power lies in listening
Published in 2017 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
By Nancy Henderson on October 10, 2017
Catherine “Kit” Petersen was a junior at the University of Oklahoma law school in the mid-1970s when a student raised his hand during a discussion about a civil rights case. “Teacher, we don’t need to talk about this, because we have affirmative action right here in class,” he said sarcastically. “We all know the only reason that women are here is because the federal government makes the law school accept them.”
Petersen, one of only 14 female students in her class of 212, fired back, “I think I’m here because my LSAT scores were as good as anybody else’s, and my grades were as good as anybody else’s.”
After 41 years in practice, the senior partner and former litigator at the all-female family law firm PHM Law Group in Norman still speaks her mind, even in her current less adversarial role as a mediator. Calm and pragmatic, with a wry sense of humor, she has helped shape family law through relentless service to the state and national Bars, lectured about family law issues across the U.S., and chaired the original committee that drafted the Oklahoma Child Support Guidelines. Now 66 and a grandmother of 10, she has spent decades striving to do right by her clients.
“The thing about Kit is that she takes the best interests of her clients to heart over winning the case,” says Virginia Henson, who has known Petersen for 30 years and worked with her since joining the firm as partner in 2000.
Petersen, who grew up in Norman, traces her feminist spirit back to her mom, who in the 1930s hitchhiked alone across Europe and became one of about 1,000 Women Airforce Service Pilots to fly during World War II. “So I grew up with a mom who didn’t believe that there was a limit to what you could do and didn’t see any point in saying, ‘Gee, I can’t, because I’m a woman.’”
Fascinated by her politically active parents, members of the Republican “loyal opposition” in the 1950s and ’60s, Petersen handed out flyers at a young age and assisted at the party’s local office. Then, one day, a law professor visited her high school and declared, “If you like people and you like puzzles, you really ought to consider law.” Petersen decided to become an attorney, in part so she could run for public office.
Her political aspirations withered when, the summer before her senior year at Hastings College in Nebraska, she campaigned for Dewey Bartlett Sr. in his race for the U.S. Senate and discovered “my skin was way too thin. The things that people would say and do were just mean. And the people who surrounded the candidates were not interested in the issues. [They wanted] to get close to power.”
During a law school internship at the city attorney’s office, where she was assigned as legal adviser to the Norman Police Department, she also ditched the notion of criminal defense work. “I thoroughly enjoyed criminal law from the perspective of the prosecutor,” she says, “but when it came to what I was going to do out of law school, I realized with defense that, by and large, most of the people I’m going to deal with are guilty as sin and I really wasn’t interested in getting them off.”
After earning her J.D. in 1976, Petersen applied for two jobs and was interviewed for both by condescending men who kept asking, “Well, as a woman, do you think you could ___?” The first time, the interview ended after she finally responded, “You know, I don’t have a problem with the fact that I’m a woman. I think maybe you do.” During the second one, she bit her tongue, then later was told she didn’t have enough “spark.” Soon after, learning she would earn far less than the man before her had been paid, she turned down a police legal adviser position, telling the police chief, as she says, to “stick it where the sun don’t shine.”
Instead, Petersen joined a Norman solo practitioner named George Thomas, handling everything from wills and title opinions to divorces and fence disputes before taking over his practice when he retired a couple of years later. She founded her own jack-of-all-trades firm in 1979. Says Petersen, “I spent the first three years scared spitless that I was not going to do something right; that people would figure out that I really didn’t belong in this thing.” Fright eventually gave way to boredom.
“It was basic—there was nothing really complicated about it or intellectually challenging,” she says. “So I decided I could be pretty good at a whole bunch of things, or really good at one thing.” She put the word out that she was focusing on divorces “because it was the thing most other attorneys didn’t want to do.” Many thought she was crazy to focus on such an emotional practice area. “They didn’t bother me,” she says. “I could do somebody’s divorce and listen to somebody talk and cry, and not go home and have nightmares about it.”
She loved that her practice area encompassed many areas of the law. “You can have a securities problem in a divorce case. You can have a criminal problem in a divorce case. You can have partnership issues,” she says. “It was sort of like a soap opera on every channel. There was drama and there was passion, and there was something of significance going on at all times.”
Petersen also discovered that she was a born listener. “[When I] acknowledged that they had an issue and that I understood what the issue was, immediately people seemed to feel better,” she says. “The magic or tonic of just letting people be heard was very easy for me.”
In the mid-1980s, the lingering disrespect for divorce attorneys got under her skin. “In the ’70s and, I’m sure, before that, anybody could do divorce because there wasn’t really any law,” she says. “But it’s anything but easy work.” She and a handful of other lawyers breathed new life into the inactive family law section of the Oklahoma Bar Association, which has grown from 112 to 1,100 members and is now the largest section of the state Bar.
Petersen credits her career success to overpreparation and a “work-like-a-dog” attitude, even in the face of early gender discrimination. She once heard a courthouse rumor that she was sleeping with the judges. When she asked a mentoring judge why, he replied, “Because you’re winning, and they need to have an explanation.”
After working for years as a litigator, she gradually shifted to mediation, and has focused on that full time since 2015. Petersen says her blunt style is “not necessarily the norm.” She isn’t afraid to tell clients they’re either not being reasonable or giving in too quickly. Sometimes, she says, they just want to tell their stories to someone who will acknowledge their feelings. In her office, Petersen keeps a hammer, a “magic” wand and a supply of imaginary fairy dust. The hammer has a label on it: “Kit’s Therapy Tool.” As for the wand? “A lot of people come in saying, ‘I don’t know why we’re here. The other side is never going to be reasonable.’ And I say, ‘Sometimes miracles happen—a little magic.’ There’s one attorney who, in private sessions, invariably turns to her client and says, ‘Just trust her. She’ll use the fairy dust when she needs it.’”
She has brought out her tools only once, during a heated mediation session when she advised the arguing couple to back off and let her use her tools to resolve the situation. They agreed.
Mediation has given Petersen a sense of freedom and creativity, which also comes into play in her avocations of painting and running a jelly-making business [see sidebar]. “I can sit and kind of play with different ways of approaching the problem, different ways of attacking whatever the issue happens to be, because oftentimes they have only looked at it as a financial problem when, in fact, it is more of a control problem,” she says.
Take, for example, a recent property settlement matter involving a couple who owed a “horrendous” amount in back taxes. For years, the wife had not authorized her employer to deduct enough from her paychecks, choosing instead to bring home more money to pay for the care of two children with serious medical conditions. Petersen persuaded the angry husband to take out a second mortgage on a property he had purchased before the marriage (but to which he had added his wife’s name when they wed), pay the owed taxes, then reimburse himself later when the couple sold their shared house. He was able to keep his pre-marriage property, his spouse relinquished her interest in it, and both parties were relieved to be rid of the debt.
“Neither of the attorneys had any expectations that it would settle,” Petersen says. “I was told that my fairy dust had been in operation that day.”
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