Heart of a Lyons

A trained social worker as well as a lawyer, Theresa Lyons preaches compassion

Published in 2007 New Jersey Rising Stars — August 2007

There’s a 1976 case that anyone who practices law or works in a mental health field knows: Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California. Tanya Tarasoff was a 19-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, who was killed by a man who previously divulged his murderous impulses to his psychologist. Two months after the disclosure, the man killed Tarasoff, and her family filed a wrongful-death suit against the psychologist’s employer, the University of California. The case was appealed to the California Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that psychologists have a duty to warn the public of threats.

Theresa Lyons first read Tarasoff while pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Rutgers. “The discussion after class was, ‘Lawyers are vipers. They don’t understand the need for client confidentiality,’” she says.

Six months later she found herself in torts class as a first-year law student, reading the exact same case. “The discussion after class was, ‘Well, is psychology really a science? These bleeding-heart liberals do not get the need for the greater responsibility to the public.’”

Which side was Lyons on? As it turns out, both. That’s life as an attorney who has a master’s in social work. “It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” she says. “I’m just not sure which side is Jekyll and which is Hyde.”

 

Lyons’ interest in social work grew when she spent a few years after college at Montclair State working as a high school teacher and counseling students. She enrolled in a graduate program, and something clicked for her during a course called Law and Social Work. Two months later she took the LSAT; three months later she was in law school; three years later she was one of the first to graduate with Rutgers’ dual degree in law and social work.

Today, the 38-year-old teaches that same class at Rutgers and ushers students through the same journey. She also teaches a course for social-work students on legal issues, which shows students how the two disciplines work together. “It’s nice to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” she tells them, “but if no one else is singing with you, you’re going nowhere.”

At the helm of Heer & Lyons, a three-year-old, six-attorney matrimonial and family law firm, she and her law partner, Christine Heer, who is a licensed clinical social worker, pioneer a progressive model of a compassionate law firm. Attorneys have 10 to 15 fewer cases than at a typical matrimonial firm, she says, so that each attorney can take time to learn their clients’ names, birthdays and passions. Clients bring in homemade barbecued chicken; photos of children decorate the office fridge. But the lawyers still display a tough attitude in court.

“We’re hard-core litigators,” says Lyons. “We do what we need to do, we prepare all night, we come to court with our big binders and all that stuff.”

 

Still, she makes sure she doesn’t work all night every night. One motivation for founding her own firm was to carve out time for her foster and adopted children. Right now, Lyons and her life partner are parents to three: a 22-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old. They’ve also been foster parents to two children who’ve since been reunited with their families.

Lyons was working typical big-firm hours as an associate in 2003 when one of her kids called her at 11 on a Tuesday night, worried. “She said, ‘Terry, when I first met you, I was only 3 years old, and you were so poor you used to take me to Carvel and make me choose between two scoops of ice cream and one scoop plus sprinkles,’” Lyons remembers.

Surrounded by piles of papers, she replied, “What’s your point?”

“I loved you then,” her daughter said.

“That was a turning point for me,” Lyons says. “The lawyers there were probably the most brilliantly skilled attorneys I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, but it’s a large firm, and they work a lot. I needed to be in a place and a space that permitted me to have more time.”

Time to take three days off from work to teach her 5-year-old’s preschool class how to bake gingerbread houses from scratch, for instance. These life experiences enrich her work.

“My kids remind me that I’m everything and nothing, all at one time,” she says. “They remind me that when I am litigating on behalf of a particular family, that many of the same difficulties and joys and sorrows that I face every day, my clients face, too. That is an invaluable gift.”

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