Barb Craft, J.D., is the chair of the Legal Studies Department and manages the Paralegal Studies program at Davenport University.
How did you get started along the path that led you to this place in your career?
My parents always told me—you can do whatever you want. There was never any doubt that I would go to college. And I just naturally gravitated to law school. I had an aunt and uncle who were both lawyers and parents who valued a legal career. And I had always been pretty good with words.
How did you find your first job after law school?
While I was at law school I interviewed with large firms and realized that it was not the life for me. I went to work for Legal Aid of West Michigan for five years.
How did you get your next job/opportunity?
I was then recruited by UAW GM Legal Services for a supervisory attorney position in its Lansing, Michigan office. GM, in partnership with the UAW, was creating a legal services benefit program for its employees and the local legal aid offices were a natural recruiting ground for attorneys to staff the program. The clients at UAW GM were working class and had some assets to protect through the provision of services such as estate planning and consumer law.
What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable/gain skills/experience success?
I’ve spent my entire career doing personal legal services and I wouldn’t change it for the world. The incredible relationships I’ve formed have been such a gift. It is amazing what people have shared with me and the trust they have given me. I treat it as a sacred bond.
What have been some of the critical turning points in your career including both successes and disappointments?
Deciding not to go into a traditional law firm but rather work at Legal Aid was a turning point as was going to the UAW GM Legal Services Plan as a managing attorney, which gave me administration experience and skills I hadn’t developed earlier. Going into private practice following the first sailing adventure was certainly a change. The most recent one has been moving to an academic institution and into legal education full time.
I can’t really say I have had disappointments in my career. The ongoing frustration is and always has been that people who need access to lawyers and the judicial system to resolve critical issues cannot afford to hire attorneys. The admirable pro bono efforts of many attorneys come nowhere near meeting the vast unmet need.
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?
My career has been defined as much about hitting the “pause” button on it as it has been about developing it.
My husband John, a clinical psychologist, and I love to sail. We decided to take time off from work to make an extended sailing trip. So I left UAW/GM Legal Services. When we left on the first trip John was in perfect health and we had two children. We had a glorious time on the first extended sailing adventure which lasted for one and a half years, with our toddler and our young teenage son. When we were almost home our adolescent son went sideways on us as we were returning to the Great Lakes via the Erie Canal. I will never forget that day when we were sailing through the Erie Canal. Our son just simply had had enough. He was done. He instantly became an unruly adolescent and he, and us, wanted him off that boat immediately.
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?
When I was first in practice, I had a great paralegal who was really good at handling the business end of things. He was great at billing and collections. When I returned to practice after the second trip, I found that I did not enjoy it as much. The pressure of billing hours was very apparent. Rather than being free to practice and help people, I was focused on how much I billed.
When the opportunity arose to head the paralegal program at Davenport University I jumped at the chance. It has been a great fit and I very much enjoy my work.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing new lawyers today?
I am concerned that young lawyers today do not have the same opportunities to live their lives as fully as I have mine. I was able to work my way through WMU Cooley Law School. I had no debt coming out of law school. I think it is harder for young people today because of student loan debt.
The opportunity to take extended sailing trips and experience different countries and cultures was an amazing opportunity. Lucky, lucky us!
What are some changes and challenges you see on the horizon for the practice of law?
The cost of legal education and the debt students come out with is a real impediment to any practice that is not immediately lucrative.
What recommendations do you have for someone to be ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with possible changes in the profession?
Technology, technology, technology.
If someone had offered you some advice about your career early on—what do you wish they had suggested to you?
I wish someone would have told me how much fun legal education can be. I love being in the classroom and supervising students in clinical settings.
What role have mentors had on your career? What advice do you have for new lawyers about mentor relationships?
Critical! Without the mentoring I received at Legal Aid, I can’t imagine having the knowledge and skill to create a successful private practice. Young lawyers need to seek out mentors, especially if they are trying to practice law on their own. The Bar Association is an excellent source of information and mentors. Take advantage of it.
About the Author
Victoria Vuletich is a professional responsibility attorney in Grand Rapids, MI and is a professor of law at Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School.