The 2010 president of the state bar practices estate law out of a charming old house in Salem with her husband, daughter and dog close at hand. She defines her career on her own terms
Published in 2010 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
By Beth Taylor on November 11, 2010
You were the first in your family to attend college, is that right?
Right. My mother was a nurse, but in those days they went through a program that was connected to a hospital. So she had some higher education, but she really wanted me to have a college degree. My mother was wonderful, still is, very supportive. I also remember sitting in a high school psychology class and the teacher talking about how one moves forward in life. Bottom line: To achieve your financial goals in life, you either marry or become educated. I thought going to school was a better option to count on.
How did your mother react to your decision to go to law school?
[Chuckling] Today she doesn’t like to talk about that, but I still remember the phone call, standing in the hallway in the dorm when I was in college, saying I was going to apply to law school. Her reaction was horrified because she said I could never have a family, and what was more important to her was that I have a family. And I remember thinking, “Well, why can’t I have a family? Nobody’s going to tell me I can’t have a family.” It didn’t take very long before she came around, but that was just her first-blush reaction to that very first phone call.
What was your undergraduate degree in?
When I graduated from college, it was 1979 and I had a degree in political science with a minor in Spanish.
Why the minor in Spanish?
In my junior year of high school, I went with a group of students from the Tacoma Public School District to Mexico in an exchange program called Students to Mexico ’74. We came back as ambassadors for the Spanish program in the public school district, so we were sent to classrooms in elementary, junior and high schools to talk about Spanish—the language and the Spanish program in the schools. We lived with a family in Guadalajara for six weeks, which was a wonderful experience. It was very broadening in terms of seeing how differently the world lives from the insular world that you’d grown up in. The family had probably seven or eight children, ranging from those who were married and came back to visit with their own children, down to a 5-year-old, so it was a big family. Every day we would walk to the market and buy the food we were going to prepare. There was no refrigerator. Everything was very natural: lots of chicken soup with the claws in the soup pot. It was just a different approach to life, very relaxed, lots of parties, a kind of in-the-moment lifestyle. I made my daughters take Spanish as soon as they were able to, whether they wanted to or not. And it always made me want to travel. I haven’t been able to travel yet as much as I would like, but that’s coming up in the next phase of life.
So when did you decide on law school?
After I graduated from college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I was very good at going to school. It seemed like a degree in political science in and of itself really wasn’t going to get me much of a job. So I applied to schools that had joint degrees in law and business, and eventually narrowed it down to Willamette University. I remember saying, after the first year of law school, “Anything that prolongs this I am going to avoid,” so I dropped out of business and just got the law degree. So I never specifically saw myself as a lawyer; I was just drawn to law school because it kind of fit with where my talents were. My first job was as a law clerk for Bill Crothers and Dale Crandall after my first year of law school. I clerked for them that summer and the following two years, and they offered me a position as an associate when I graduated.
So being a woman at that time wasn’t an obstacle to getting hired?
I’m going to guess—going through that first round of interviews before we finished our first year—law school’s very competitive and I had very good grades, was at the top of my class, and that probably gave me the opportunity to walk in a lot of doors. I really liked both Bill and Dale, and it turned out I liked Salem. I had two interviews that year. One of the firms in town didn’t hire me and Bill did, and I’ve heard that the other lawyer regrets his decision, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.
Was lawyering pretty much what you expected it to be?
There are so many different areas of law that the kind of the area you practice in totally impacts your experience. When I first started, I was doing more litigation—a creditors’ rights-based practice. After 10 years I chose to leave that area and work in the estate planning field, and in those two areas of law, your days are so different. When I switched practice areas, my experience changed so much. I really like the office work—the planning side—as opposed to the litigation side for this time of my life because it gives me more control over my day, my calendar. I liked litigation when I did it, but you don’t have much control over your own time, and you do have much more control over it when you’re in an office practice or planning practice. I got tired of litigation and my daughters were getting older and I wanted to spend more time with them after school, so the two kind of blended together.
Other than the more predictable schedule, what drew you to estate planning?
I was done with the litigation side, and planning was appealing to me—helping families and working through things in a positive light. When I represented bank clients, even though that work was intellectually challenging, I never, ever got hugs at the end of a case. Now I get hugs all the time. Part of this job that is not good is you form relationships with your clients and then they die. You help your clients through times of grief, and sometimes you’re going through your own grief at the same time, so that’s not a good part of this job. People call estate planning “happy law,” and when you get hugs, it is happy law, but there’s a big part of it that’s not. There’s a balance with it. But it’s so different than the adversarial setting that it just totally draws on a different skill set.
Have you seen a lot of change in estate law over the years?
The change I’ve seen, generally speaking, has been the switch, primarily motivated by clients, from a will-based practice to a living-trust-based practice, probate-avoidance being key for folks as they come in and talk. Technology has totally changed the landscape. You can provide very complicated, long documents that are marvelous for a relatively reasonable fee for clients, where, before the computer, I don’t know that that was necessarily possible. So I think it’s become much more sophisticated. What maybe was always available to the wealthier client is now available to an average client by use of technology. That’s kind of a 30,000-foot view. In all areas, the law has become more complex since I first started, and that’s as true in the estate world as anywhere else. But for the most part, even though there are always tax law changes, what I would see as really the biggest changes are the advent of the use of technology and the educational level of the clients—or their awareness that there’s something out there other than the probate process. So the clients tend to drive the process a little bit more than perhaps they used to.
Your firm morphed over the years and eventually you found yourself in solo practice?
Yes, but at that time, my older daughter was in law school. I was looking forward and thought if she wanted to do this, I was willing to be solo for a while to give her an opportunity then to join me; and that’s the way it’s been for two years, myself and my daughter. We have the opportunity to see each other more on a regular basis, obviously. We’ll have lunch together, and sometimes we’re talking about cases and sometimes we’re talking about other things. It’s just the best.
So you were your daughter’s inspiration?
Well, you’d have to ask her. Maybe.
And your daughter isn’t the only family member nearby.
My husband is a bankruptcy trustee. His office is right down the hall here; we’re all in one older home together. He has an M.B.A. from Willamette. He was a loan officer at a bank and ended up as a bankruptcy trustee. As he likes to tell people, he’s not a lawyer and can’t give them legal advice. But he probably knows more than most people.
How did you end up practicing in a charming old house instead of an office building?
My daughter found it. We were looking for a place to purchase, and she found this house and it was quite ready to move in—phone lines, computer lines and ADA-compliant. We’d been downtown for many years in the Busick building, an old turn-of-the-century office building, and really enjoyed the space, but when it was down to just me, it was more space than I needed. My husband and I decided to find a space that fit us; that we could own as opposed to rent. I realized, as I was standing upstairs at one point, that I felt like I was in my grandma’s old house when I was a little girl, the same newel post—it just felt like I was in Nana’s house, and I realized I probably liked it when I first saw it and didn’t even realize why. But it was very reminiscent of my grandmother’s house growing up.
You’ve stayed in Salem. What are the upsides and downsides of practicing there instead of Portland?
I would say the upsides are that we have a bit more relaxed approach to the practice; our overhead is less, so our hourly rate is less; and I think some of the financial pressures then are less. We have a kind of freedom; we’re not as formal. I bring my Australian shepherd to work and it’s a much more relaxed atmosphere. You know the community very well; the circle of lawyers is not that large. And we pride ourselves in Marion County for practicing in a way that’s civil and welcoming and easy. Probably the downside is [that] most things happen in Portland, so you’re always in your car driving. I’ve volunteered with the bar for a long time; you just take it as a fact that you’ve got an extra hour up and an extra hour back to go to a committee meeting. Having said that, there are lawyers who come from a far longer distance than Salem to attend the meetings, so I’m not whining, but there is a difference, I think, not being in Portland, that we just know, whether it’s going to a CLE or volunteering or a case meeting, a lot of times we’ve got the distance to go. And sometimes you’ll get a sense from lawyers in Portland that, not being in Portland, you’re kind of a second-class citizen, which I totally don’t believe.
Tell me about a case that stands out in your mind.
I’ll tell you my favorite memory from being a lawyer. Some friends of mine had a little boy, were unable to have more children, and decided they wanted to adopt a baby. They talked to me about it at a party at my house on Super Bowl Sunday. In our office at the time, Crothers did a lot of private adoptions, and that following Wednesday, we had a private adoption that fell apart. The baby had been born a little premature and there was a large hospital bill. The adoptive parents, I think, were reluctant to take on that financial responsibility. I said to Bill, “I have some wonderful people who are marvelous folks, good parents. They want to adopt a baby. What do you think?” He said, “Give me this information”—he gave me a laundry list—“call them up and see if they can take this baby.” I did, middle of the day at work, said, “Here’s the questions, can you do this?” The birth mother and her mother came in that day at 2 o’clock, went through everything, consented, and at 5 o’clock we picked that baby up from the hospital and delivered him to my friends—all in one day. I get teary still, thinking about that day. It was one of those circumstances where you were in the right place at the right time with the right set of tools, and if I weren’t a lawyer, I couldn’t have made that happen for them. That baby is now 23.
As president of the Oregon State Bar this year, what is your mission?
My focus has been how do we use technology to help in the practice of law; how do we support the practitioners and help them do their jobs, especially in these difficult economic times?
I want to try to make life for the practitioner better, as easy as possible, relieve stress, and help and support them in any way we can.
Speaking of relieving stress, what do you do to relax?
I try to regularly take my dogs out to a park and take a good walk with them. If I can do that every day, play with them a bit, it helps. I like to quilt; I like to crochet; I like to create projects. I really like having something tangible at the end of the process; I like the colors and the textures. I also travel with my husband a fair amount when he’s away at games. He officiates football with the Pac-10, so our fall is a very busy time. He’s traveling every weekend. Another interest is reading books. My husband bought me a Kindle for Christmas and an iPad for my birthday, in order to get rid of what he calls the fire hazard of the thousands of paperback books in our house. I like history, biographies, some romance; I read just about everything, but probably more of a historical bent.
What’s the secret to your success?
I think if you work hard and you follow through with what you promise you’re going to do and you’re timely and you charge people a fair fee, they’ll be satisfied with your work and they will send other people to you. That’s pretty much, I think, what has happened over all these years. I try to keep work and my family and volunteering all in balance and not let any one area of my life overwhelm the other—not always achievable in any one given moment in time, but overall—to not work to the detriment of my family, not play to the detriment of work. And I like the volunteer work, whether it’s for the state bar or the Boys & Girls Club, or the YWCA—it gives you a different element in your day that makes you feel good.
What type of volunteering do you do?
I have served on committees and boards with the YWCA starting at the very beginning of my time here in Salem, and then served on its board of directors and board of trustees for 15 years or so. For the Boys & Girls Club, I’ve served on their foundation board. I just resigned because it was too much with being president as well as being on other boards; I needed to cut back this year. But they’re both marvelous organizations. Their missions and what they do in our community is so impressive. The YWCA hooked me when I found out that their one imperative mission was the elimination of racism wherever it’s found and by any means necessary. I thought the YWCA was just a place you’d go to swim, but when I found out what an agent of social change it’s been for over 100 years, I just thought it was so worthy of my time. I was always proud to work with them. I think wanting equality and fairness for all people should be everybody’s concern at all times.
What advice would you like to give young and aspiring attorneys?
I heard a former president of the California state bar say that she’d been talking to many young women lawyers who felt that, if they were going to practice law, they could not have a family, which hearkened back, I guess, to my mother’s concern. That really impacted me, to think that in the passage of time, what we’ve engendered is a young group of women who feel they have to choose. That was what we fought so hard against, having to choose. I would simply encourage anyone, be they male or female, if they want to practice law and they want to have a family, too, that it is possible to do so. It’s not always easy to do, but there are a lot of choices, and the law gives you the tools and the power to make choices about the way you live your life that maybe other professions don’t afford you. Sometimes I think we lose sight of that power because we may get sucked up in whatever the demands are of the moment, but we’ve got an amazing profession; it’s very elastic; it allows for all sorts of ways to use that license. Having a family is just as important as practicing law, and I would hate for anybody to think they can’t do both.
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