In the Wake of Strong Women
Family attorney Marcia Maddox took hints from Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Thompson, and it made all the difference
Published in 2013 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on June 11, 2013
Updated on June 14, 2013
Q: You graduated from Smith in ’63, but weren’t admitted to the Virginia Bar until ’83. What happened in between?
A: When I was at Smith College, I majored in political science and I took a constitutional law course there, and I realized I was passionate about the law. But after I graduated, I married my former husband in August of that year, and then in December, I was hired sight unseen to go work for the White House.
Q: Sight unseen? How did that happen?
A: Mr. Kennedy was killed Nov. 22, 1963. My mother was a reporter for The Washington Post, and she had known Liz Carpenter—who became Mrs. [Lyndon B.] Johnson’s staff director and press secretary. They ran across each other at some cocktail party, and Liz asked my mother, Dorothy McCardle, if she knew of anyone available. Liz Carpenter was frantic to hire people. Normally there is a whole transition time between an election and when one takes over as president; you have time to hire people and get your team together. That did not happen. Mr. Johnson’s staff as vice president was very small. Mrs. Johnson really had no staff.
I had a job—I was working in the Department of Labor in the press office—[but] it was a job that I wasn’t suited for. I’m not very good with bureaucracy—the concept of not being able to speak with the person in my mind, my real boss, but only being able to speak to my immediate supervisor, who then was able to speak to her supervisor, who then, I think, three people later, was allowed to speak to the director. … It made no sense.
When Liz Carpenter went up to my mother at this cocktail party, my mother said, “Yes! I absolutely know someone who’s available.” I was 22 years old and I was literally hired sight unseen.
Q: Do you remember your first day?
A: I went to work on Jan. 13, 1964. I do remember it was snowing, and I do remember I was so nervous about being on time that I was an hour early. The guard showed me where Liz Carpenter’s office was, and I walked in there, and there were nine phone lines. Nobody was in the office and so I made a mistake I have never again made, and hope that no one in my office ever does. I went down the line of calls without asking anybody who they were. I picked up each line and said, “Mrs. Carpenter’s office, please hold.” Went down to the ninth, had them all on hold, and went back to number one and started taking messages. I got to number five and this very pleasant female said, “Who is this?” and I introduced myself and said this was my first day. And she said, “Well this is Lady Bird Johnson.” I put her on hold! She said, “Could you come over here right away?” and I said, “Yes, ma’am … but where’s here?”
Mrs. Johnson ended up being the most amazing lady I have ever met and ever will meet. She was the most gracious, lovely, loving human being you could imagine. Very smart, very direct. She was absolutely “it” as far as I was concerned. The job lasted as long as Mr. Johnson’s job did. My last day was January 20 , the day Mr. Nixon was inaugurated.
Q: What did you do in the Johnson administration?
A: I was a Jack-of-all-trades. Virtually every trip the first lady ever took in those years I went out in advance and made all the arrangements, for not only her—who she would meet and this, that and the other thing—but for the press and how we were going to get there and how we were going to move people around. I did trips for the president. I worked state dinners and I washed windows, served champagne, showed around presidents of foreign countries.
Q: What’s your favorite anecdote from your time there?
A: I was in Hawaii putting together a trip that Mrs. Johnson ultimately did not take but the president went on, which was called his “Asian Mission.” That trip was going to start in Hawaii and then he was going to Asia, and unannounced, he ended up in Vietnam at the end of the trip. While I was in Hawaii, I got this call from the president’s press secretary asking would I please go to Pago Pago. The president and first lady were going to Pago Pago as a part of this trip and they had lost contact with the Secret Service agents that were in Pago Pago putting that trip together, so I was instructed to get on a military transport and figure it out.
Of course I said, “Yes, sir!” I got off of the plane on a stop on the way to Pago Pago and this guy who was this high-up person there grabbed my hand as I came down the steps, and he seemed to have a hard time letting go. Then a couple of other guys grabbed my hand and seemed to have a hard time letting go.
They asked if I would have lunch in their mess hall. So we walk into the mess hall and complete silence took over, and I thought, “My goodness me!” None of it made sense. Then the head of the effort who had greeted me said, “I want you to know that you are the first woman any of us has seen in nine months.” I could not get out of there fast enough.
Q: Were you sad to leave the White House?
A: We were all sad. I can remember watching the television. I was at a party, and the president announced at the end of a statement that he would not run again. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That particular White House worked as a team. There wasn’t this great infighting that you sometimes read about in later administrations. We all thought we played just a very small role in something far more important than we were, and that it made a difference. We killed ourselves to try to do a good job.
When I left, I was 27. It really was the making of me because when someone like the first lady or the president of the United States asks you to do something, “I can’t” is not an option.
Q: How did you segue to the law?
A: A lot of us got pregnant after the March announcement that the president wasn’t going to run again. I have two daughters, and they are my very best friends. One of them is my law partner. I stayed home with [my firstborn] for two years and learned I was not a very good stay-at-home mother. It was very hard to make a transition from ordering up airplanes, moving vast numbers of people around the world, making arrangements, meeting people high and low … transitioning from doing too much to the point of near exhaustion to not having near enough to do. It didn’t do very well. My husband at the time had a small land-surveying business, and so I essentially was an office manager. I enjoyed that for a while. But the marriage fell apart. I realized that I really couldn’t survey my way out of a wastepaper basket, and I had no career, and nobody was really interested in having some woman run their business. So I determined to go to law school at night. I became the sole supporter of my children, and I worked all day and then I went to law school at night when I was 38. It took me 3½ years to graduate. It normally takes four years at night, but we were going broke, so I petitioned [American University] for permission to double up courses in the summer.
Q: Did you feel an immediate connection with family law?
A: No I didn’t. My first law job was for a firm that dealt in small-business appeals. I wasn’t fascinated, and I ended up getting fired because at the time the daughter who is now my law partner was hospitalized for about five weeks. She developed a bone infection in her leg and risked amputation. I spent more time in the hospital than I did at my first law job.
I called up everyone I could think of to help me find another job. It was actually a judge that I had appeared in front of in my own divorce case that suggested I contact someone who ultimately put me in touch with Virginia’s most famous divorce lawyer, Betty Thompson. I worked for her for 10 years, and she taught me how to practice law.
Q: What do you love most about it?
A: Just helping people solve their problems, and helping them have a different or better perspective. Because they really are going to be better off down the road. Divorce is not the end of the world. It’s very often the beginning.
Q: You eventually decided to open your own shop.
A: Yes. When I was 52. [Thompson] was never going to have a partner. I was a good briefcase carrier—there’s very little I wouldn’t have done for that wonderful, wonderful woman. She treated me fairly, and I tried to do everything I knew how to help. But it got to be the point that I figured if I was ever going to work for myself … so I gave her three months’ notice and wrote her a five-page resignation letter, thanking her for all the wonderful things she had done for me and my children. I have loved family law from the very first day I walked into Betty Thompson’s office.
Q: What was your first case that made you say, “I can do this.”
A: It was a case that I worked with Betty, actually. It was down in Stanton, Virginia. It involved the husband actually defrauding the wife, and we found the smoking gun—he had a book on divorce that he’d made careful and readable notes in the margins on what he was not going to tell his wife and what he was going to hide from her. He was a professional man, so there was a good deal of money. Betty graciously allowed me to do the examination. It was a complicated matter, and it worked out very, very well for our client. This was the case that made me realize that I was supposed to be a lawyer.
Q: How often do your cases settle?
A: I settle 92 or 93 percent of cases. I’ve said for years, the only won case is a settled case. Because if you win too big in the trial court, then the other side just appeals it because there is an appeal of right in divorce cases. You don’t have to get a writ.
Q: Do you wish you spent more time in the courtroom?
A: I’ve spent plenty of time in a courtroom. [Laughs.] I don’t need more practice.
Q: What do you do outside of Maddox Law?
A: The law is still very much my passion. I probably should have hobbies, but I really don’t. I adore to read, and I adore the symphony. … Let’s just say I’m not a bridge player.
Q: How do you see your practice evolving in the next few years?
A: I think my partners will carry more and more of the primary cases of the firm. I hope to never really stop, but I no longer put in 60-hour weeks except right before a trial, so in that respect, I have slowed down some. [I’m 72], but I still have plenty of energy.
Q: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you’d like to discuss?
A: Oh, golly, no, but you’ve nailed it—that’s what I ask when I finish preparing everybody’s testimony. Before I close that book up, I look at them and say, “Now is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you wish you could tell the judge?”