Soft Heart, Steady Hand

Family law attorney Marcia H. Armstrong, partner at Armstrong & Armstrong, on the importance of patience and mentoring, and how being a lawyer isn’t like the TV shows

Published in 2013 North Carolina Super Lawyers — February 2013

Q: What inspired you to choose law?

A: I was a double major in history and modern foreign languages and really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. To be honest with you, it just seemed like an exciting path to take. We had a mock, simulated, summit type thing with one of our political science professors in college and we had to negotiate a treaty. I enjoyed doing that; I was the ambassador to the United States in that summit. That might’ve sparked the interest.

 

Q: How did you end up choosing your practice area?

A: That probably also was by default. I went to one family law course in law school, and I started practicing law with a firm in my hometown. My very first cases dealt with federal Fair Labor Standards Act kind of cases, and then I started doing some family law with George Mast, who was the senior law partner in the firm that hired me out of law school, and it just sort of evolved. It’s something that I seem to do well in and enjoy, although [it’s] stressful. But it just seemed to be a good fit for me and my personality. In my life, it seems like I just sort of kept doors open.

 

Q: How does it fit your personality?

A: I tend to have a lot of patience. I also think that when you’ve got somebody here—their world’s falling apart, they need somebody that’s going to be patient—they also need someone that’s going to be steady; loving, but also firm. They need somebody that’s going to let them know when they’re not thinking rationally or when they may be going down a path they shouldn’t be. … I’m a people person, I have a soft heart, but I can be the steady hand, so to speak.

 

Q: It seems similar to a counselor.

A: Sometimes I feel like I am. … But you have to be careful because you really could burn out. In fact, I don’t do as much custody work as I did when I was younger because after 15 to 20 years I was burning out.

 

Q: Because kids are involved?

A: Yeah, and sometimes because [parents] are upset and they aren’t thinking clearly, they’ll put the children in the middle. It’s hard. I have three children of my own and just to see kids torn apart, it’s very stressful. I hopefully help with that as well, trying to encourage people to have good family therapists involved and to ask them if they’ve thought about how what they’re doing is affecting their children. I try to be an advocate for the children as well.

One thing I seem to be doing a lot of in the past several years is representing people that have mental health issues. We’re talking well-educated, career-type people that have serious issues and a lot of them: clients who’ve been suffering from bipolar or alcoholism or drug addiction, prescription drug addiction, which is really rampant right now in our country and world. But those people need help. They need help from their spouse, but they also need help from themselves to be sure that they are looked after, so I don’t shy away from those cases. Maybe I should. But they’re very appreciative; they realize they’re not always the easiest clients.

 

Q: Did anything about practicing law differ from what you expected?

A: I don’t think I really knew how it would be. I have two children [in the legal field]—one that’s been practicing a year and another one that’s a first-year law student—so I think that [they] probably have ideas because they grew up with a mother, and a father, that was a lawyer, so they kind of lived through it. I think I just sort of went into it wide-eyed, like all young people, I guess—excited, and was going to go and solve problems for people. I was going to be a problem solver. And that’s exactly what I feel like I am.

 

Q: What is it like having a law firm with your husband, Lamar?

A: Great, because we don’t have all the issues of, “OK, so how are you going to divide up the pie, whatever money you make?” It all goes to our children. We practice different areas of law so we don’t see each other that often, but it’s nice, it’s been a real experience. I don’t know that it would have been such a great experience if we had tried to practice the same kind of law. I’m not his boss, he’s not my boss, we do totally different things. Although we have tried a couple of alienation of affection cases together. That was kind of fun.

 

Q: You touched on this before, but what’s the most rewarding part about being a lawyer for you?

A: It is helping, and I know that sounds cliché—“I love helping people”—but it’s true. I wouldn’t be doing family law if it wasn’t. Problem-solving, solving problems for people. There’s a satisfaction when the case is done and these parties go about their lives. There’s a satisfaction knowing that you’ve, like I said, in a very difficult time to have been able to be there and be their rock.

And mentoring. This is the thing that’s hit me [these] past few years. Now that I’m the seasoned lawyer, I need to be a good mentor because I was fortunate and had good mentors.

 

Q: Is there a formal mentorship program that you’re a part of or is it more informal at your law firm?

A: I do both. I’m the state bar counselor for our district, and I have lawyers who will contact me in our district—not just family lawyers—that have ethical issues they’re grappling with. I do serve for the mentor program at the Wake Forest Law School, so I mentor a law student through that program as well. [If] there’s a high school student or somebody that wants to see what it’s like to practice law, they’ll come follow me around for a day or so. I’m always open to any of those kinds of opportunities to show them how wonderful our profession is, and rewarding. It’s hard work though.

Maybe that’s the one thing that surprised me, come to think of it. I just don’t think people realize how hard lawyers work. To be successful you really have to work hard and [be] willing to sacrifice weekends, at times, and nights. It is not an easy way to make a living. Not like the TV shows.

 

Q: Nothing is ever like the TV shows.

A: There’s this show, Suits or something? Lamar and I were watching it the other night, just ‘cause our son had told us about it, and it’s funny how they walk around all day long and not one of them has a file in their hand, much less a box. And their desks are clean and everybody’s offices are just immaculate, and I’m just thinking, “Yeah, right.” [Laughs] That’s not real. When I go to court, I have boxes. They didn’t even have a file; [they] had like maybe one little manila folder or something in their hands.

 

Q: Outside of the office, I understand that you’ve been on 12 different mission trips, most recently to Swaziland.

A: I got involved in those because of my children. We have a very active youth group at our church and they did mission trips in the summers, so I volunteered. I have roofed houses, I have painted houses, I have done anything: sheetrock, put flooring down. I would go with my children every summer on those trips. They were extremely rewarding.

 

Q: What else do you do to unwind from your practice?

A: My other passion is Harbor, which is the domestic violence program in our area. I was the initial chair 26 years ago, and I’m still on the board. We have a shelter now for victims of domestic violence. We’re on a capital campaign now to build a modern, new shelter.

I’m in a book club. … And then I’ve been a member of the same bridge club for 27 years. I do that once a month as well. We love the beach. I love hanging out with my children. I’m not a grandmother yet, although I have two grandpuppies. We’re going the right direction. [Laughs]

 

Q: Is there anything that you’d like to add that I didn’t specifically ask about?

A: I’ve become very good friends with my family law peers across the state and all over the country. That’s been really nice. I’m in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and [I’ve] become extremely good friends with these family lawyers: We’ve gotten to know each other over the years, we know each other’s families, we celebrate when we have births or marriages of our children, we are sad when we lose family members.

It’s also very nice because if you get a tough question, you can email everybody, and say, “OK, I got this issue, has anybody ever had this issue,” so the networking is just fabulous as well. That’s something that I definitely wanted to mention because the family lawyers are special. [Laughs] We also know how to have a good time. Apparently, our reputation as the family law section of the North Carolina Bar Association [is that it] has the best annual meetings, which I would probably agree. We know how to have fun together as well. [Laughs]

[I’ve been in a group of family lawyers] for 25 years called the Dirty 30. It sounds kind of bad, but it really isn’t! We have members across the whole state. We get together every January in Chapel Hill, and spend a weekend together without our spouses or significant others. It’s really all about talking about law but also socializing together. No more than 30 [lawyers are in the group]. Unfortunately we have had a few who have passed away. We will add new lawyers along the way to keep the number to 30.

One last thing: I’m a mediator and an arbitrator, so I believe very, very strongly in alternative dispute resolution. I’ve tried a lot of cases and I still will do that but I definitely, definitely—especially in our area of practice—just do everything in my power to get people to try to resolve it without resorting to the courtroom. Especially if you have children and you’re going to have to continue to jointly parent the children and then one day they’re going to have children, your grandchildren, it’s just so much better to resolve your conflict outside of the courtroom. That’s important in every area of practice but extremely important in family law.

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