The Higher Law

"You get people at the absolute lowest points of their lives," says Utah family law attorney Sharon A. Donovan

Published in 2014 Mountain States Super Lawyers — July 2014

“There was a moment I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” says Sharon A. Donovan, a family law and alternative dispute resolution attorney in Salt Lake City. “I was a junior at the University of Utah, and my boyfriend at the time said, ‘So, what are you going to do with that poli sci degree? You should go to law school.’ And I thought: good idea!”

It was a good idea both because her older brother, whom Donovan idolized, was just back from traveling in India and was considering law school, and because her own wanderlust had recently, if temporarily, been satisfied.

“A girlfriend and I had met these cute French guys at college,” she says. “We concocted a trip on the pretense that we really wanted to go to school in Paris—which we did. We took classes at the Sorbonne. But mostly we went for the cute guys.”

After graduating from S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah in 1979, Donovan began her practice. She joined her current firm in 1988, and became part of the masthead of Dart, Adamson & Donovan two years later.

“You get people at the absolute lowest points of their lives,” she says of the clients she guides through divorce, custody issues and other aspects of family law. “It’s amazing what you can do to help people manage through a difficult morass of legal and emotional issues. I probably should have been a social worker or a psychologist; maybe I was in another life. Having these people skills, it’s so helpful, to set goals and help them be realistic.”

Realistic, even when practicing in the mostly Mormon state can mean accommodating principles considered by some to be higher law.

“I think this will be the case in any state where one religion is predominate,” says Donovan, who is not Mormon. “A lot of the time if you have staunch LDS [Latter-day Saints], people were married in the Mormon Temple, which means they are sealed together for eternity, and divorce is going to pose a problem in the here as well as the hereafter. It can get pretty hard if one party does not want the divorce.”

It is also the case that in some parts of Utah, Mormonism is still heavily patriarchal, with women expected to stay home and care for the children. “That’s changed somewhat with economic realities,” says Donovan. “Still, you have a 30-year-old woman with five kids and no college degree, and now she’s faced with raising them alone. My advice to any girl of any religion, when she comes through my door is: get a college degree or a trade where you can support yourself, whether you divorce or your husband dies.”

As grueling as divorce and family law can be, Donovan says for her, “it’s a great fit.” She also knows it can be amicable. “I did my own divorce. It took three weeks.” She laughs. “People say any attorney who represents herself has a fool for a client, but my ex-husband thought I was going to be fair, and I was.”

At present, Donovan handles one or two trials a year, choosing to devote herself instead to mediation and collaborative family law. She is also very active in the Utah State Bar, a fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and a longtime board member of the Legal Aid Society.

She still loves to travel: to Paris last year for her 60th birthday; to Costa Rica with her daughter the year before; to New York, Florida and Seattle for recent professional obligations.

“I like it all,” she says, adding that she is looking forward to a meeting this fall with the American College of Trial Lawyers, of which she is a member.

“They meet in London and Paris. They stay in really nice places, too,” she says. “As a kid I stayed in hostels. Now, I want to stay where you get the plush robes.”

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