Making a Career of a Passion for Legal Aid

 Sara E. Strattan is the Executive Director of Community Legal Aid Services, Inc.  (@CommLegalAid) in Akron, Ohio. Contact her at sstrattan@communitylegalaid.org.

  • How did you get stated along the path that led you to this place in your career?

Although I had no conscious desire to become a lawyer, I took the LSAT during my last year in college.  After graduating, I found that in the job market my history degree enabled me to take a typing test.  I worked for an insurance brokerage for several months, and one day, in frustration, walked down the street and applied to law school.  They accepted me within a few days and I started classes several weeks later.  I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a lawyer, so I took only a partial load the first year.

After the first year, I was convinced that I wanted to practice law and began thinking about what I wanted to do

  • Was there something that influenced you in college or law school to move into the area in which you are currently working?  If so, what was it? 

The experience of tutoring underprivileged children while in college and an internship at Legal Aid set me on my path.

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  • How did you find your first job after law school?

I worked at Legal Aid in Cleveland as a work-study student and then as a full-time legal intern.  When I moved to a new community after taking the bar exam, the local Legal Aid office made room for me because I was  experienced in Legal Aid work.

  • How did you get your next job/opportunity?

I received a phone call from an acquaintance who had just been elected county prosecutor.  He was looking to staff his office and invited me to come and work for him.

  • What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable/gain skills/experience success?

Every night I read.  I learned the civil rules backwards and forwards.  I would take a volume of the Ohio Revised Code home and read a chapter to learn how the statutes related to one another.  And, I studied Mauet endlessly, reviewing the scenarios until I could manage them without thinking.  If I had it to do over again, I probably would have studied evidence more than I did.

  • What have been some of the critical turning points in your career including both successes and disappointments?

The first turning point was leaving Legal Aid in the early 1980s.  There were huge funding cuts, and we were all working too hard to try to make up for the fact that the size of our staff had been reduced.  I didn’t know how to pace myself and I had a new baby.  The financial uncertainty and long work hours were not what a young mother needed.

The second turning point was taking the job as a county prosecutor after several months in private practice.  I never expected to do that kind of work and found that I loved it.

A third turning point was leaving the prosecutor’s office due to my mother’s illness.  She had Alzheimer’s disease and could not continue to live alone.  I felt like I was walking off a cliff and I had no idea what to expect.

The next turning point was the return to Legal Aid in the mid-1990s after having stayed home caring for family, doing volunteer work and handling some transactional work part time.  I didn’t realize how strong the Legal Aid pull would be until I accepted a part time job with the local organization.  Within two years, I was working there full time.

  • Have you ever stepped off your career path for a period of time during your career, or made a significant career change?  What was that change, and how did you do it?

Yes.  I stopped working to take care of my mother.  I did not have a full time job for five years.  I joined the Junior League and had a small practice handling the things that my husband passed on from his corporate clients such as unemployment hearings, workers compensation hearings, etc.

I made the change after several months of trying to juggle an active trial calendar with looking in on my mother who lived an hour away.  It became more and more apparent that she could not live on her own.  She came to “visit,” and was staying at our home more than she was at her home.  I went in to quit my job and the prosecuting attorney would not immediately accept my resignation.  He made me wait a week to see if it was really what I wanted to do.  It was.  I quit, and we moved to a bigger house.  Mom came to live with us and stayed for five years before she went into the nursing home.

During this time I found that volunteering gave me the flexibility I needed in scheduling, and I met some wonderful people through the League of Women Voters and Junior League.  We had lots of committee meetings at my house, and my mother would sit with us.  After a while I discovered that our community offered senior day care, and she attended two days a week.  Later on, we occasionally had home health aides come in.

  • What kinds of things have you done to develop clients for your practice?  What has been most successful for you?  What advice would you give to a junior attorney trying to develop his or her client base?

I have never had to develop clients.  I will say, however, that leads for jobs or clients will come from places you never expect.  Represent your clients vigorously and in a professional manner and keep the lines of communication open.  You will never want for clients.

  • How has the practice of law changed in the time that you have been practicing?  How has it impacted your particular area of practice and your work?

Yes!  When I started there was no advertising.  There were no computers.

The changes have meant that expectations have increased.  Client expectations have to be carefully managed, and everything moves at a much faster pace.

  • How do you use technology to assist you in your work?  What recommendations do you have for others in the best use of technology?

Technology is essential to your practice.  Clients either do not want to or cannot they afford to pay legal fees.

You need to have a sophisticated web site to market yourself.  In order to make the best and highest use of your time, you need to have a client database which will support your billings, and you need to take advantage of word processing aids such as Hot Docs.

  • If you were advising a young attorney today who was entering your field, what advice would you give them about how to find a job, how to develop their expertise, and how to be successful?

We find that most of our hires come from long-term volunteers.  When we hire we invest the first two years in training.  It is costly for us to make a hiring mistake.  Recent graduates and young lawyers who do not yet have jobs come to us and make significant volunteer commitments, some full time and others several days a week.  When they do so, and prove that they are trainable and useful, we look for ways to bring them on staff or we assist them in finding other employment.

  • What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing new lawyers today?

There are too many lawyers.  There are too many lawyers.  There are too many lawyers.

Most people cannot afford to pay lawyers what lawyers want / need to make.

People want quick answers.  They want to do an internet search and find out what they need to know.  They don’t want to come to an office and pay a lawyer.

  • What are some changes and challenges you see on the horizon for the practice of law?

How will we integrate technology into the practice of law? We don’t shop the way we used to.  We don’t read the way we used to.  We don’t pay our bills the way we used to. What does this mean for the practice of law?

  • What recommendations do you have for someone to be ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with possible changes in the profession?

Think about what you would want if you were a client.  Get on top of the technology.  Find out what leaders in the profession are saying about the future of the profession.

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  • If someone had offered you some advice about your career early on—what do you wish they had suggested to you?

I wish I had really taken time to enjoy each experience.  I did not understand that things would change so dramatically.  Specifically, I enjoyed doing trial work, but my current job description doesn’t include that.  I miss it.

  • What role have mentors had on your career?   What advice do you have for new lawyers about mentor relationships?

Mentors play a huge role for many lawyers.  When I started out, I always felt that I could call anyone and ask them for advice.  Lawyers are very generous in this way.  Seek them out.  Both you and they will be enriched.

About the Author

Interviewed by Carol Fox Phillips, Certified Executive Mentor/Coach. Contact her at carolfoxphillips@gmail.com.

 

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