The French have a name for women at my stage of life. We’re not young anymore, but we’re not really old either. In French we are une femme d’un certain âge — a woman of a certain age. Une femme d’un certain âge is presumed to have had life experiences that make her interesting and wise.
It has been, as the Beatles would say, a long and winding road. As in any journey, there have been highs and lows, successes and failures, wins and losses. Although it hasn’t always been easy, my successful appellate practice is the culmination of everything that preceded it, the disappointments as well as the accomplishments.
My childhood was similar to that of many American girls. I loved books, the Beatles, and Barbie. I was conventional in many ways but also had a thirst for adventure. I aspired to be an ambassador or a spy – a female James Bond. My middle-school yearbook listed my career aspiration as “connoisseur.” Like many lawyers-in-training, I was studious, confident and outgoing. I led the parade from nursery school and gave the speech at the elementary-school graduation. I was a bookish child, and my parents often found me reading by flashlight after lights- out.
I grew up in Connecticut. When I was 11, we moved to Ithaca, N.Y., where my father, an industrial psychologist, was a visiting professor at Cornell. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the Cornell campus, like many college campuses, was the scene of various anti-war protests. It was an era of rapid change. It was also the dawn of the women’s rights movement and changing expectations for women.
Three years later our family moved to Holland, where my father worked for IBM. I stayed in the United States and attended boarding school at Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y.
Emma Willard was an environment where young women were encouraged to discover their potential and make a mark in the world. At Emma Willard I learned to speak Spanish, wrote for the school paper and was elected student body president.
During school breaks my father took us on some of his business trips and we saw the world – not only Europe, but also Tunisia, Kenya, Lebanon, Iran, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan. I lived with a family in Valladolid, Spain, for a summer. Those experiences kindled a lifelong interest in foreign languages and international affairs.
My interest in the law was sparked at Emma Willard when one of my favorite teachers left teaching to attend law school. At the time there were few women in the legal profession. Little did I know that it would be the genesis of a career in the law.
After graduation, I went to Middlebury College in Vermont. I chose Middlebury because of its strong reputation in the liberal arts and foreign languages. I majored in English and spent my junior year studying at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London.
In college I also studied Spanish and French and frequented the language tables where I would speak French at lunch and Spanish at dinner. I further honed my language skills by spending a summer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I took art classes and practiced Spanish.
My college thesis advisor suggested I apply to law school. I was accepted at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. In law school, I was on the editorial board of the Texas International Law Journal, where I was able to combine my love of writing with my interest in international affairs.
After graduation I decided to move back East. On a visit to Philadelphia, I fell in love with the city’s unique combination of history, culture, sophistication and geographic location.
Finding a job in Philadelphia as a recent transplant from Texas with no local connections was not easy. My first job was with a family-law firm in Montgomery County. I then became an attorney-adviser at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where I spent my time researching and writing summary judgment motions and briefs.
I later joined Dilworth Paxson as an associate in the litigation department. At Dilworth I was immediately put on cases for some of the firm’s most prestigious corporate clients. My writing skills were put to good use.
At Dilworth I represented clients in a wide variety of complex cases, including bankruptcy, civil rights, commercial law, criminal law, employment law, international law, labor law, medical malpractice, personal injury, products liability, real estate and land use, securities law, tax law and trusts and estates. I became a full equity partner in 1991.
In 1994, I married one of my partners. Our son John was born in 1995 and our daughter Christy was born in 1997.
Most lawyers are planners. We have calendars, filing deadlines, meetings – organized lives of purpose. No matter how organized you are, however, adding young children to the mix teaches you to expect the unexpected.
One memorable story involves a federal-court jury trial. It was 1997. I was the mother of a 2-year-old. I was also seven-and-half months pregnant with my second child.
After three days of trial it was time for closing argument. The argument started well enough. Then, 45 minutes into my closing, I fainted. Opposing counsel caught me before I hit the floor.
What did I do? I did what any lawyer would do. I stood up, asked the judge to bring the jury back in and finished my closing argument.
Over the years I developed a good reputation at Dilworth for brief-writing. I enjoyed research and writing, and appellate practice was a good fit for my skills. The predictability of an appellate practice also meshed with my family responsibilities. I eventually became the head of the firm’s appellate practice group.
One of the highlights of my appellate practice was when I was able to combine my various interests – appellate-brief writing, international affairs and Spanish – to represent the Republic of Uruguay in an appeal to the 2nd Circuit. Three large international banks were seeking to execute on a judgment entered following a $200 million arbitration award against Uruguay. The case involved novel issues of international law, sovereign immunity and execution on foreign judgments. I went to Uruguay to meet with top governmental officials and to Washington D.C., to meet with the Uruguayan ambassador.
I have always believed in giving back to the community. My father was a representative to town government for many years. Serving in elected office was something I had aspired to since my days as student-body president at Emma Willard.
In 1999, I was approached by a member of the East Whiteland Township Board of Supervisors who was looking for someone to run against the incumbent board chairman. As it was too late to get on the primary ballot, I ran as a write-in candidate. Between the primary and the general election, I raised money, printed brochures, wrote letters and knocked on almost every door in the Township. I was elected with 54 percent of the vote.
My children were 2 and 4 when I first ran for township supervisor. We were living in Malvern, and I was commuting to Philadelphia, almost thirty miles away. My husband, by then a senior litigation partner at Dilworth, had a demanding and high-profile legal practice.
The task of juggling a law practice, a family, and the township job was exhausting. I was often tired and irritable. In my effort to do everything, I felt that I wasn’t doing anything well. My highest priority was my family. I wanted to be a good mother. For me, that meant spending more time with my children. My husband and I agreed that I would benefit from a sabbatical for a couple of years until both children were in school.
Although I adore my children, I wasn’t cut out to be a stay-at-home mother. I missed my law firm colleagues. I missed the intellectual challenge of my practice. I even missed dressing up for work. So I went back to Dilworth. But instead of working in Philadelphia, I worked at the firm’s Newtown Square office, which was only a 20-minute drive from my home in Malvern.
I remained a township supervisor after returning to Dilworth. The firm, which has a long history of public service, was supportive of my choice. I was re-elected to the East Whiteland Township Board of Supervisors in 2005 and again in 2011. I served for 15 years, six of them as chairman.
In 2006, the Chester County Democrats selected me to succeed Andy Dinniman as Chester County commissioner. Notwithstanding the party support, the court of common pleas appointed someone else to fill the vacancy for a year.
In 2007, I ran in the Democratic primary for Chester County commissioner. I put my heart into the campaign. I sent out literature, raised money and traveled around Chester County speaking to voters. I lost in a contested primary. I was devastated.
Although I had planned to return to Dilworth after losing the election, life got in the way. My marriage was unraveling. My husband and I separated in 2008. The life I knew was falling apart. Then it got worse.
In 2009, I was diagnosed with uveal melanoma, a rare but deadly form of cancer. I was treated at Wills Eye, and the cancer went into remission. I have been cancer-free for seven years.
The lure of public service was still strong. As a single mother, I wanted to find a position with job security and predictable hours that was not far from home. After Judge Paula Ott was elected to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, I was nominated by Gov. Ed Rendell to fill her seat on the Chester County Court of Common Pleas. I drove to Harrisburg and personally lobbied the state senators to support my nomination. Notwithstanding my efforts, my nomination was one of five judicial nominations withdrawn by Rendell as part of an agreement with the Legislature to impose a statewide moratorium on judicial appointments for budgetary reasons.
In 2012, my life was at another cross-roads. I was getting divorced, and my children were growing up. My son would graduate from high school in 2013 and my daughter in 2016. Soon they would be in college, and I would be single and an empty nester. I decided to sell the house in Malvern, move to a new home in Haverford and start over.
It was time to make a career change. I thought about what I enjoyed doing and what I did well. I decided that I did not want my career to rest on the decisions of other people.
In 2013, I started Appellate Law PA as a sole proprietorship. I started small. I bought a new computer, ordered stationery and business cards, and worked from home. I told some friends what I wanted to do, and one of them sent me a Superior Court appeal. I won. I converted my sole proprietorship to a professional corporation and named it Appellate Law Group. I opened bank accounts, created a website, signed up for Lexis, bought management software, found office space, and hired an associate.
The practice is growing. I currently have a few wins under my belt and several appeals pending. I am getting more referrals every day.
Starting a law firm is a challenge. But I am up for the challenge. I’m happy with my life and am looking forward to the next adventure.
Maybe I’ll learn Italian.
Reprinted with permission from the January/February 2017 issue of The Pennsylvania Lawyer.