By Dan Lear • June 06, 2014•Writers in Residence
Carol Lear is Professional Practices Director and Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the Utah State Office of Education. She has worked for the Utah State Office of Education for almost three decades serving in a variety of roles. She defied some strong social and religious norms and attended law school at the University of Utah in the late ’70’s and early ‘80’s during which time she, amazingly, gave birth to two of her three children. While I’m posting this interview in June, the recent passage of Mother’s Day in May is apropos as Carol is also my mother – and I was one of the two whom she brought into the world between attending classes, preparing for finals, and juggling her legal writing assignments. Her example was definitely a big reason that I went to law school but given the fact that I attended classes before I was even born it was probably inescapable.
Happy Mother’s Day Mom! I love you.
DL: When did you decide or how did you decide to become an attorney?
CL: I had always wanted to be a high school teacher. I loved school and I loved high school. When I was assigned to write ‘what do you want to do when you grow up’ papers in elementary school I would always write, “I want to be a teacher, an English teacher.” After college I taught high school for five years. I loved it. After I had been teaching for four years, I realized that the students I was teaching were going on to new and interesting things, but that, if I continued teaching then I would remain there teaching junior honors English.
Driven by a somewhat uncharacteristic spurt of ambition, I said “I think I’ll go to law school.” That was 1976. Times were different then: I walked in one day after teaching school and took the LSAT without any preparation or, really, much forethought. I did well enough to get into the University of Utah, the only place I applied. I decided to teach for one more year and then start at the University of Utah.
I started law school in 1977. I did not really have a plan. I just felt like I needed to do something new. I didn't know what kind of lawyer I wanted to be; I didn't really think a lot about practicing law, my plan initially was just to go to law school.
I started law school pregnant with my oldest son, which in 1977 was pretty unusual. Only as recently as 1976 had the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of LaFleur vs. Wisconsin, decided that women could not be forced to quit teaching public school when they were four months pregnant or “showing.”
DL: Being pregnant and a woman in law school was unusual generally but was it more atypical in Utah – which is predominantly Mormon – simply because you were a woman?
CL: Yes and no. I make myself sound really unique but when I started law school in 1977 around 30% of my class was women. I was not the only woman in my class. Or even one of very few. I can tell you there were no other pregnant (as I was at the time) and Mormon (as I remain today) women, starting law school with me.
But there were other Mormon women in the class. I did not think about it much . . . at the time. My mom had always worked. So, I had this sense that I, too, would be a working mother. I had loved teaching so continuing as a working mother, either in law school or otherwise, seemed right to me.
Probably more unusual than how I felt was the way that my mom and dad reacted. They were both born in the 1920s. After they got over their initial dismay that I was taking on so much, they were very supportive and helpful. My 56 year-old still-working father became my early-morning babysitter. He was amazing.
DL: Did you feel out of place in law school or were you welcomed?
CL: I felt like I fit in to begin with. My eldest son was born in January of my first year of law school right after I took all my finals for the first semester. Being nine months pregnant and taking those finals was . . . uncomfortable. But even at that point I did not feel very unusual.
My second semester I unilaterally made the decision to cut back on my schedule. I decided not to register for a seminar that I was supposed to take. I also did not register for another class that first year law students took. I cut my schedule by about a third without consulting anybody.
At the end of that year the law school invited me to a meeting. They were unhappy. In the meeting they said, "Are you really a serious law student? How do you plan to complete law school?"
Their reaction caught me off guard. Nobody acknowledged that I'd had a baby. That was when I began to realize that there was a little bit of a bias, although we didn't call it “bias” in those days. I did not consider myself a feminist at the time and I did not realize that anybody was what you might call an “anti-feminist.” Looking back on it, it seems there was an assumption that if a student cut back on classes then the student wasn’t a competitive law student. In this regard, I’m not sure law school has really changed that much.
DL: Did you face any challenges related to sitting for the bar or finding a job particularly in light of the dominant Mormon religious and cultural paradigms in Utah at the time?
CL: No, there was none of that at the University of Utah or in Salt Lake City where I lived. The person who graduated second in our class was a woman. Now, looking back at the group of women I went to law school with forty years later, a few have gone on to be partners or very, very successful and productive female lawyers. Most of them also have had children. Of course this is anecdotal, but I think it is informative.
Another couple of women, one a really good friend of mine, actually got into more political, or legislative careers after law school.
Actually, one woman in my class went on to become Utah's first and only woman Attorney General.
DL: Jan Graham? I didn’t know that.
CL: Yes. Also, and it may be anecdotal again, but when I have run into my female law school colleagues and friends, I have found many—maybe as many as half—who only practiced law briefly or never really practiced. One said to me about 20 years after we graduated from law school (her husband was a heart surgeon; she certainly did not have to work), “You were lucky. You found a niche after law school that was really satisfying and worked with raising a family. Many of us never did.” This woman dabbled at practicing law, eventually went to divinity school and became an ordained Episcopal minister.
If I can distinguish between women lawyers now and then it is that women then did not take the potential of being a practicing lawyer as seriously or as much of a necessity as I would say women do now. Maybe we were less competitive. It is only as I have grown older that I have wondered about my audacity in being a young Mormon woman going to law school in the 1970’s when the expectation for women, and certainly the expectation for pregnant Mormon women, was to stay home. I have loved my life. And, for the most part, I am not guilt ridden.
DL: Talk me through your career path. How did you find your way? Did you have a job lined up after graduation?
CL: No, I did not have a job lined up. My entre into an education law “career” or opportunity happened, really, almost entirely by serendipity. As I was finishing law school, again pregnant with my second son, there was a program that just started at the University of Utah called "Teaching Law in the High Schools."
DL: They call it "Street Law" now, right?
CL: Some places call it "Street Law.” We called it "Teaching Law in the High Schools." There were only 10 law students accepted into the initial program. I applied and was accepted. I think my teaching experience made me a very competitive candidate because it certainly was not my grades!
We were assigned in pairs to go into local high schools and teach about the law in social studies, sometimes business law or civics classes. The assignments lasted about a semester.
I got to know the individuals who directed that program. The program director was not in need of an “assistant” but she had “soft” grant money that she received year-to-year to support the program. It was the '80s so more of this kind of funding was still available. She hired me as an assistant in the Law Related Education program that she directed.
It was a part-time job for about 20 hours a week. I worked there for about six years.
Meanwhile, I stayed in touch with a friend from law school, whose name was Doug, who was working at the State Education Office and either knew he needed or wanted to have someone work for him. He called me about six years after I'd been out of law school and said, "I have a position that is 20 hours a week. You'll largely be writing administrative rules for the state education office. They've just rewritten the administrative code so that this rule writing has to be a lot more legalistic. Would you like to apply for the job?"
The job sounded great because I really liked him and it allowed me to keep doing law and education work. At the time, my husband was also starting some entrepreneurial projects that made having government benefits and a government schedule a real attraction.
I applied for and was hired for the job. I started working at the State Education Office originally 25 hours a week, increasing to 30 hours a week after a few years.
Doug had developed a really interesting niche legal “practice” at the State Education Office. We developed a great relationship and worked together for almost 15 years. Then, in the late 90’s he died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. It was very sad; I lost one of my best friends. We did not really say “mentor” then, but he did teach me everything he knew. He was a wonderful man. When the office began to look for a replacement, I was a natural fit. Plus, my kids were older and I felt like I wanted to work full time—and often more than full time!
The job has evolved and it's still evolving. In the late 1990s I became responsible for the professional practices or ethics activities for the State Office – the teacher disciplinary activities. This changed the job dramatically.
I probably should add that I am finishing out my career by running for the local school board. I do not have to be a lawyer to do that, nor have worked at the State Office of Education, but I think my legal background and experience in law and education will help me be an effective school board member.
DL: Your role has never formally been an attorney role, right? Because the State Office of Education is officially represented by the Attorney General, correct?
CL: Right. I have to give Doug credit for laying the groundwork for that. I was an “Education Specialist.” I am currently the Director of School Law and Legislation. To date we have successfully made the case to the Attorney General that public education, unlike every other state agency, needs attorneys within the office because of the unique and constant legal issues that arise in education. I am a lawyer but I also I have a teaching license, which I have kept current the whole time I have worked for the State Office of Education as a lawyer. We are teachers first and also lawyers.
In theory, the work I do is not something that would have to be accomplished by a lawyer. However, it helps a lot that I have legal training when I am doing things like writing rules that implement statutes, managing the administrative professional practices procedures, and other similar activities.
DL: I think even the most objective observer would say that the legal profession is changing. Today more than 50% of law school students are female. There are now more women going into the profession than there are men. The debt load is really high for graduates. There is a challenging shortage of jobs.
Do you have thoughts about that? Particularly from the perspective of a young female lawyer or law school grad?
CL: It's interesting, because even thirty to forty years out from law school I can see some of the challenges facing the profession. I do think that the “quasi-legal” position I'm in is a thing of the future. Certainly for education: There are so many legal issues in education that it is very helpful for school districts to have an attorney on staff. And, I have encouraged school districts over the years to consider hiring attorneys. Although attorneys end up being some of the highest paid administrators in a district, the school district can use the attorney not only as a “first line of defense” for legal questions but also for training and general institutional knowledge on key training and compliance issues. If every state had three or four teacher and attorney-trained specialists, these people could provide preventive training and have discussions with new teachers and refresher discussions with veteran teachers about day-to-day legal problems in schools. When should teachers refer students who appear to be suicidal? How should teachers interact professionally with students on social media and personal cell phones?
It is a very intellectually stimulating environment. The downside is that because these legal education jobs are in education, no one makes a lot of money. I would not change my career path because of the money. But I do acknowledge I make less because I am in education.
DL: Okay. I've taken up a lot of your time.
CL: But I am your mom.
DL: That's true. And I love you for it. Parting thoughts on anything.
CL: First of all, to every woman who works and wants to raise children herself and does not want to have a nanny raise them, I will say this: You need a supportive spouse and/or supportive family members around you because you cannot do it all. You cannot do it alone.
If your husband does not want to put kids to bed, help with field trips, and stuff like that, I think, personally, your kids really suffer. I acknowledge that that may be some of my religious philosophy coming through, but I do believe it pretty strongly. I have been blessed with a really supportive husband. Yes, he did travel a lot, but he was always supportive of what I have done, he has been supportive of the kids, and he loved being a dad. That made all of our lives better.
One final thought: government is a good place to practice if you are a woman who is going to raise a family because the hours are pretty regular, you have really good benefits (which is very important in raising a family) and you have a decent retirement plan.
I also know that I am a mother and a career woman. It is the core of who I am and want to be and I have made peace with that. I feel that I have been incredibly fortunate to have had the people in my life that I have who have helped me along the way. My kids, my husband, my parents and my in-laws, were all helpful at different points in their lives and made it possible for me to do all this. I could not have done it without them.