A trial lawyer and mother of three, Beth Muckala, of Hall Estill, in Oklahoma City, said she hasn’t always been good at putting her family first.
Soon after the birth of her eldest child six years ago, Muckala, 33, once worked at the law office until midnight.
The next morning, a senior shareholder, who’d noticed her car was still there when he left late, told her the firm was happy with her work, but its partners understood that her priority was with her husband and 6-month-old baby at home.
“I realized then that it (the added stress) was something I was doing to myself,” said Muckala, a commercial litigator who made shareholder in December. “I wanted to be the best at being an attorney and the best at being a mom, and was feeling only half as good at both,” she said.
That was the day Muckala decided to make her family a priority and never apologize for it. To balance her two roles, she tries to get to the office by 7:15 a.m. every day, work through lunch, leave by 5 p.m. and, when necessary, catch up on work after her kids — a boy and two girls, ages 6 to 11/2 — are in bed.
“My job invigorates and stimulates me,” Muckala said. “It makes me proud of myself. I know my children can see that, and will take value away from the example I set.”
Raising the bar
Power attorney moms across other Oklahoma City law firms feel similarly. As attorneys, they’re better mothers, and as moms, better lawyers, all agree.
When Vicki Behenna, a director at Crowe & Dunlevy with three adult sons, launched her law career in 1984, there were far fewer accommodations for working mothers.
There was no Family Medical Leave Act or telecommuting from home, and Behenna believes one firm included her in its reduction in force because they assumed she would leave and stay home with her kids. “I was pregnant at the time, and they already knew I had two children,” she said.
Behenna found the work-life balance she wanted as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Oklahoma, where she worked 25 years until joining Crowe & Dunlevy in November.
As a U.S. attorney, she developed a reputation as a trial lawyer of which she’d always dreamed and remained a present mom, she said. Still, it wasn’t easy when her boys were young, she said.
“I’d clean house, do the grocery shopping and cook dinners,” Behenna said. “Except for those nights where all you could do was grab something between ball games, we’d always eat at home as a family, and still do every Sunday night with my mom, who’s 82.”
Behenna’s husband, Scott, a former special agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and now an intelligence analyst with the FBI, handled all the parenting duties when Behenna was chosen to help prosecute during the Timothy McVeigh trial. For that 18-month period, when her boys were in middle school, she lived in a Denver hotel and came home every other weekend.
Behenna got a painful view of other side, the defense, when she helped fight the prosecution and conviction of her eldest son and former U.S. Army officer Michael Behenna, for war crimes in Iraq. Michael was released in March, after serving five years in Leavenworth.
Kept sane by work
“During that time, the distraction of work was the only thing that kept me sane,” she said.
When the government offered an early retirement package, Behenna jumped on it. “I understood what those families (on the defense) were going through, and it was hard to watch,” she said.
At Crowe, Behenna changed sides and now specializes in white-collar defense, along with government relations and health care.
Dealing with difficulties
Ellen Adams, who practices complex litigation mainly in the energy industry for GableGotwals, said her firm is sensitive to the fact that she’s a mother as well as a trial lawyer.
Adams has two daughters: Abby, who’s 9 months old, and Emma, 6, who has Down syndrome and was born by emergency Cesarean section at 34 weeks gestation after Adams, during a routine ultrasound, was told her baby had a brain defect and was missing a chamber in her heart.
Adams went back to work two weeks later, delaying her maternity leave for when Emma was released from the hospital. Two weeks after she was discharged, Emma suffered congestive heart failure and underwent open-heart surgery, and two months later — the very day Adams returned to work — Emma had another emergency, ultimately resulting in a second open-heart surgery a few months later in Dallas, where Adams worked remotely until her daughter recovered.
“Thankfully, today, I have the opportunity to try to figure out how to balance the, mostly typical, obligations of motherhood with work,” Adams said.
Emma, she said, is a “healthy, exuberant, sometimes mischievous 6-year-old who loves her baby sister. She is in kindergarten now, and she goes to private physical, occupational, speech and feeding therapy.”
Working mother Q&A
The Oklahoman asked work-life balance questions of Muckala, Behenna and Adams, along with Diana Vermeire, a state and federal litigator with GableGotwals; Jodi Dishman, a trial lawyer who practices complex litigation with McAfee and Taft; and Stephanie Chapman, a tax attorney with McAfee and Taft, who each have two young sons between the ages of 2 and 6. Here are their answers:
Q: How has being an attorney made you a better mother?
Vermeire: I don’t think I could be personally fulfilled without having a challenging and engaging job like being an attorney. I also think that the organizational, time management and, most importantly, problem-solving skills of a lawyer come in handy as a mother.
Adams: My time away from being a mom makes me more engaged when I am with my daughters. Being a mom is hard work and, at times, means you have additional roles like nurse, therapist and tutor. While being an attorney is full of its own stresses, it is a complete shift from my roles at home and, for whatever reason, that shift provides a break from the stress of being a mom.
Dishman: I’m good at asking questions and cross-examining my children, so I usually know ‘who did it’ pretty quickly. My boys like to give one-word answers, and the skills I’ve obtained through being a litigator help me to ask better questions, so I get more complete responses out of my boys.
Q: How has being a mother made you a better attorney?
Chapman: It has pushed me to become a better listener and more attuned to cues from other people.
Adams: Spending time outside of the office when I am completely absorbed in motherhood allows me to approach problems back at the office with a fresh mind and perspective. Sometimes that break prompts a break-through for me in thinking about a case.
Dishman: It’s taught me patience. It took me over a year to get pregnant with my first child, and when he was born he had severe colic. I did a lot of holding, and he did a lot of crying. I don’t think I slept more than two to three hours at a time during his first five months of life. But the outcome was worth it: that colicky, constantly crying baby has grown into a fun-loving, smiling, busy and joyful little boy. Life as a trial and appeals attorney can be like that: the rewards are not always immediate and there can be times when you don’t get a lot of sleep. But usually the outcome of all the hard work is well worth it.
Q: What’s your funniest moment as an attorney mom?
Adams: Emma a few years ago was wide awake at 4 a.m. I was half-asleep and bribing her to sit still by letting her look at pictures on my iPhone. She said, ‘Here, Mommy.’ I looked up to see my phone’s keypad display, heard a generic voice mail message and quickly hit end. To my horror, she’d dialed my supervising partner’s cellphone. He told me later that morning that it didn’t wake him up, but I think he may have been lying.
Dishman: Last summer I had a jury trial in a civil case and put in many hours in preparing for trial. Cash, who was not even 3 yet, told me he was ready for me to be ‘off trial.’
Q: What’s your best advice to other working moms?
Dishman: Try to be 100 percent focused on whatever you are doing at the time. When you are at home, put down the iPhone or Blackberry and focus on your family. When you are work, try to focus on getting the most hours out of your work day.
Adams: Get to know other working moms. There is priceless camaraderie in exchanging stories about sleepless nights, Pinterest fails, daycare dilemmas and spare sets of clothing. It might not help you achieve balance, but it will certainly help you feel like you can make it work.
Vermeire: Don’t be too hard on yourself and know that the entire experience is a journey. There are days, weeks or years that are better than others, and there are times when we more naturally focus on being a mother first and a lawyer second or vice versa.
Q: How do you relax?
Muckala: I view relaxing as I do retirement – something that may happen eventually. Until then, there is red wine and reruns of Downton Abbey after the kids go to bed. I also enjoy my book club with other female professionals.
Chapman: Exercise is a great outlet when it isn’t producing its own stress and guilt, and church groups have been a great way to connect with friends whose perspectives are helpful. Listening to music is something I can almost always use to relax and decompress.
Behenna: Horseback riding. I bought a horse eight months ago, and wish I had done it 12 years ago. Now, I ride a couple of times a week. The stables are on my way home. My advice for working moms is to take time for yourself.