Denver Bar Association
January 2011
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Finding a New Path

by Sara Crocker

For two Denver attorneys, transitioning to teaching has been an important and rewarding step in their careers.

Barbara Laff practiced law for 20 years before becoming a gifted and talented representative for Gust Elementary School. Kathleen Gormley practiced law for 25 years, and now teaches fourth grade at Brown Elementary School. Both say they were interested in teaching long before they decided to pursue it.

Laff grew up around teaching; her mother was a substitute teacher. Though Laff was interested in the profession, her mother urged her to consider going into law. She did, saying that she loved learning about and applying the law.

“The best part of the job was counseling,” Laff said.

As her career as an intellectual property attorney took off, she still wondered if teaching would be a good fit. However, she had made a large investment in her education to become an attorney, so she worked first to incorporate her passion for teaching and education in her day-to-day work. She became an avid Continuing Legal Education presenter and looked at her time litigating in court as educating a jury.

Gormley had worked as in-house counsel for a mining company, and then moved to private practice. Wanting to spend more time with her family and volunteer, she left her firm and hung her own shingle, meanwhile ratcheting back her workload.

Especially as counsel for a mining company, Gormley hadn’t always felt connected with her community.

“My work was a lot of travel and transactions,” she said.

In the years before she made the transition to teaching, Gormley would hear about attorneys she knew “escaping”—moving on to a different career path—she found herself wishing she was in their shoes.

“Whenever I heard of someone leaving the firm to work for a nonprofit or teach, I just got really jealous,” she said. “I always wanted to do it, but I never knew how.”

Laff made her first foray into education by volunteering to teach a “Legal Eagles” course for six weeks at the Cherry Creek magnet school, Challenge School.

“We all had a good time,” Laff said. “I liked it and I made mistakes.”

After that, Laff won a Colorado Bar Association giveaway for a series of sessions with life coach Cindy Rold. She still wanted to teach and made that the goal she would work to accomplish with her coach. She decided to look at teaching at a law or elementary school.

Meanwhile, Gormley was at a crossroads. Her children were entering high school and she was ready to start working full time again, but it became a question of where.

Both women found themselves at the University of Denver. Laff attended its Teacher Education Program, which would allow her to get a teaching license. She was still working at her firm, Ireland Stapleton Pryor & Pascoe. She attended school and worked part time her first semester and went to DU full time during her second semester.

“My firm was so supportive,” said Laff, who transitioned from partner to of counsel.

That also meant some changes.

“I went from a big office to a desk in the back of the room,” she said, laughing.

When she received her teaching license, she was humbled by the fact that she couldn’t find a job. She continued working of counsel and did substitute teaching.

Gormley heard about the Denver Teacher Residency progam, which recruits people to apprentice and teach in high-needs classrooms in Denver Public Schools. It offers a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from DU and provides a mentor teacher to residents. The program, a joint venture of DPS, DU, and the Janus Education Alliance, was created to combat high teacher turnover and to meet the needs of increasingly diverse classrooms.

“It appealed to me because it could put me in a classroom right away and I could get a master’s,” Gormley said. “It just seemed like such a great opportunity to have a career I can do for another 20 years.”

She applied and was accepted, but given the structure of the program—with four days in the classroom and the fifth in master’s classes—she couldn’t split her time between law and school.

“It was either go back [to practicing law] and go full force or just change,” she said.

So, Gormley changed. Thus far, she says it’s been invigorating, not just to learn about a new profession but also to learn more about DPS.

Laff found that she needed more than just a license to be able to teach, especially as she saw children in her schools who needed help catching up. She was interested in gifted and talented education, so she enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado to pursue a master’s degree. One year into her program, she began interviewing. She started at Gust Elementary School in September, serving as its gifted and talented representative. She will receive her endorsement in GT education this month.

In her new role, Laff helps teachers enrich the curriculum in a variety of ways. When she found some of her students were bored by their geology book, she brought in a college-level book and helped them learn from it. Then, those students taught what they learned to the rest of the class.

“The idea is to keep challenging them,” she said.

Gormley is in her first year teaching fourth grade at Brown. So far, she’s having a great time.

“It’s a rejuvenating experience to change careers,” she said. It also helps her stay connected with the community, gives her more time with her family, and is intellectually stimulating.

Laff still splits her time between her firm and Gust. At times, that can be hectic. Whether it was flying to argue a case in a federal court of appeals, or getting calls from her firm while she was at her school, she had to learn to separate the two. Over time, she’s scaled back her practice and tends not to take on new clients.

“I’m really just a consultant at this point,” she said.

Eventually, Laff could see herself transitioning away from law.

“Of course, I couldn’t give up the Ethics Revue,” she said with a laugh.

Both Gormley and Laff agree that the skills they learned in law school and in practice helped prepare them for teaching. For Laff, it has helped with classroom management; she is able to catch kids acting out.

“As a litigator, I had eyes in the back of my head,” she said.

Gormley, too, has found that the skills that helped her in law school—intellectual curiosity, good problem-solving skills, and making information clear—helped her as she began teaching. It still is a lot of work.

“It’s performance art,” Gormley said. “You’re really on all day.”

Laff’s advice to other attorneys who are considering a different career path? Research. A lot. Also, “try whatever it is you want to do before you do it,” she said.

Both said their families have given them their full support, which also has been helpful.

“This is my dream job,” Laff said.

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