My Path to Becoming an Attorney

white clouds

I have wanted to be an attorney since the age of eight. I made in elementary school where I was very clear that I wanted to be, “a lawyer when I grow up who relaxes by playing golf.” The whole golf thing never happened, but the attorney thing sure did. I veered off course for a while before I got there, but i’m so glad I trusted myself and my gut. I had a lot of self doubt, but it was the best decision, so I wanted to share my experience with you to let you know that it’s OK to take a non traditional path to get to where you are meant to be.

After my first year and a half of my nursing pre requisites in college, I knew something was off. I think I had a 3.5 or 3.7 for a GPA but everything felt like a struggle. I had to work extra hard at the classes and none of the subjects felt right or interesting.

Even despite knowing going into nursing didn’t feel right, I felt all this pressure from my coaches and family to stick to a major. I mean I told EVERYONE I was going to be a nurse, and so I had to stick to my word, right? Wrong. I stuck it out for a little longer, but during the spring semester of my sophomore year, knowing that I had to apply to the nursing program in order to graduate on time, I had my first panic attack. It was in the volleyball locker room before a 5:00 AM practice. It was mortifying, I didn’t know what was happening, I thought I was having a heart attack. The team trainer didn’t know what was wrong, and just sat with me until I calmed down. I went home that day, and knew that I need to make some changes. I finished up classes for that semester, and started focusing on myself and my career, whatever that meant when I was 20 years old.

That summer, I moved to Colorado to live with my sister. I got a job at a law firm during the day and worked at a restaurant/ bar at night. I worked from 8 AM to at least 11:30 PM during the week days, but I didn’t care. I was obsessed with the work at the law firm, and woke up every morning so excited to get to the office. I loved the clients, reading the case files, and getting to go to court. After that summer, my path was pretty clear.

I went back to school, got good grades, got a decent LSAT score, and got a scholarship to go to law school. I was pretty confident heading into law school because I had put in the work to get there. The summer before I went to school, my dad and I had a really long talk, however. He didn’t want me to go to. Despite my scholarship, I still had to take out some loans, and it was expensive. We also didn’t have any attorneys in our family, and I don’t think any of us knew what to expect during the law school process. Despite this fear, I continued on.

When I got moved into my apartment I was greeted by 3 other anxious law students. One bragged about her scholarship, the other was super intense about studying, and the third one was just a quiet guy that was a hermit. My self doubts started to get a little worse after those first couple of interactions because I was not like those people. Then school started and my law school class was huge and super intimidating. I came home on my first day, sat on my bedroom floor and cried for three hours because I hated it. I already paid for the semester and my apartment, so I decided I should probably suck it out.

After my first semester I took a different approach to law school. I didn’t compete with anyone. I just did my work and kept my head down. Eventually, I met some amazing friends who felt like my people, and it made the experience so amazing! We still stay in touch and I am so grateful for them! After my first year, I worked for the Attorney General’s office in their consumer protection division. I LOVED it. I worked on so many cool projects, got some legislation passed for consumers in S.D., and made some amazing friends and mentors that I am still very close with eight years later.

After that, I went back to law school for a second year, and started law review, where I wrote an article about consumer protection that has just under 4,000 downloads. Never saw that one coming. But for being open to working in consumer protection, I would have never written that article, made those relationships, and wrote legislation that is not part of the law. Crazy to think about looking back.

In law school, I was also on moot court, which I hated and completed two judicial clerkships. I would never recommend doing these many activities in school, but they lead me down the rest of my career path. (as a side bar: no one really cared after my clerkship what activities I was in in law school, so I genuinely don’t think over extending yourself is worth it. I think once you reach a certain point in your career, your reputation and your work ethic set you apart from your law school credentials).

Anyways, law review and the clerkship led me into getting a clerkship right out of law school, which was great. That clerkship was incredible, and led to my next job as a prosecutor. When I was in law school, people would ask me what type of law I wanted to practice. I kept an open mind because I wasn’t completely sure, but I just knew that I was not going to be a criminal attorney and told everyone that. However, during my clerkship, I saw the realties of being in criminal law. I saw prosecution for the first time in real life. It wasn’t like it was on t.v. I knew my belief system at the time aligned with prosecution, but wasn’t completely sold that’s what I wanted to do.

After the end of my first year clerking, I was in court on a random Friday, watching dockets. An amazing attorney, Scott Roetzel, who is now at the South Dakota Attorney General’s office advocated at sentencing for a sexual assault victim. It was one of those defining moments in my career. I couldn’t show my emotions in the court room, but Scott made me want to reach out and hug the victim from the stand. It was so apparent how much he cared for the victim and justice, and he really made a difference in that child’s life. He did it with such a great understanding of what the victim was going through, and it was incredible to see. It was then that I wanted to be a prosecutor. Thanks, Scott Roetzel!

My job as a prosecutor was such a wonderful experience. I loved representing the State of South Dakota and being apart of an office that does good. After John and I met, however, we knew that we wanted to start our family closer to one of our families. We ended up moving to Colorado.

Also during that same time frame, I had a little person in my life that was and is a victim of a very serious crime. The D.A. in her town refused to prosecute the defendant because of a personal relationship with the perpetrator and his family. Seeing the harm done to that child so clearly, and nothing being done, crushed me as a person and as an attorney. It was really hard to stand up for my ethics and other victims when I knew that there was somebody out there that was getting hurt and we were unable to help her. It really shook me to my core as an attorney. As such, I decided to take a very needed break from prosecuting.

I had an opportunity to do real estate, and I decided to take it until I figured out what was next. Real Estate has been a solid change of pace. The hours are long, the days are inconsistent, but helping people with the biggest purchase of their life is fun. I am forced to make difficult business decisions and grow as a person every day and it’s great. I am definitely going to be doing real estate for a long long time because I truly love it! And there are no murders or assaults in real estate 😉

I don’t what my career holds for me as an attorney, but I have learned that it is OK to not take a traditional path in this career and to be open to all possibilities. You never where being open in life will take you.

Thanks for reading!

xoxo,

Steph

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