January 21, 2020 Voices

Leap, and a Net Will Appear

By Carolyn A. Dubay

Years ago, someone gave me a book featuring a series of photos of a very wise English bulldog named Zelda, who was dressed in various costumes and offered inspirational quotes. Without question, my favorite was “Leap, and a Net Will Appear.”

As someone who is averse to taking risks of virtually every kind, the impact of the quote was not to change me into a person who boldly plunges into new adventures. Quite to the contrary, I rely on a net that is there to ease the worry about what the future holds when change is thrust upon me. With a little patience, something always seems to work out, and change has made me realize that there is a world of opportunity for lawyers willing to think outside the box. When I’ve been forced to leap, a safety net for my soul has appeared.

After graduating from law school in 1995, I started my career with grand ambitions of using my degree to be a forceful advocate for my clients and contribute to the profession in other meaningful ways. As a New Yorker, I imagined myself as a partner in a big firm, living a comfortable life (at least after my student loans were repaid). When I graduated from law school, I sat for and passed the New York bar exam and joyfully threw away my bar review books while proclaiming, “never again!” I bought a condo on the Upper East Side and settled into a job at a big firm.

With this plan firmly in place, my life and career shortly changed in positive ways that I never could have imagined. First, I accepted a position for a two-year clerkship with a federal district court judge in the Eastern District of New York. Second, I met the man who is now my husband of 20 years. He was then an active-duty lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force about to begin pilot training. I had no idea what that meant for his career or mine, as my only knowledge of military aviation was from the movie Top Gun.

Leaving a big firm and a big salary for a federal judicial clerkship was easy. It was certainly no blind “leap”—I knew the position was prestigious, and I knew I would learn more about litigation and the federal courts than I could in two years of practice. During many military moves, that clerkship has been a “net” to catch me ever since. It gave me a lifelong relationship and mentor in “my” judge—one that was there throughout the ups and downs of my career. It helped me secure a position with a wonderful law firm, allowed me to return to my home in the federal courts after having children, and instilled in me a deep respect for the judiciary’s role in securing the rule of law in our democracy. That respect and understanding ultimately led me to the job I have today—ensuring the highest levels of professionalism and ethics among judges in North Carolina.

Deciding to sell my condo and move to another state to find a job, take another bar exam, and start life as a military “dependent” was another story. But “leap” I did, and with no regrets. Ever. And to anyone married to an active-duty military member and trying to balance a career, you know there are lots of leaps that you have to make. But you also know it is worth it. The military family and my own family were the other “nets” in my life. From country to country, from state to state, for one year, two years, three years, and occasionally longer, they kept me grounded. Frequent moves also made me open to new jobs, new experiences, and new colleagues who I would later call friends.

This is not to say these changes were easy. There are few jobs an American litigator can get overseas without language skills and an international business background. Stateside, there were no special rules at the time I came through for granting bar admission to military dependents. Three bar exams later, plus gaps in work while living overseas, finding a job after each new move became the way I had to exist. This fact of my life—one that gave me so much joy and opportunity I never expected—also made me leap from job to job. And each time, my family and network of friends and former colleagues I made along the way were there to catch me.

So, to all those young lawyers who are afraid to take leaps, fear not, for Zelda has a net for you.

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By Carolyn A. Dubay

Carolyn A. Dubay is the executive director of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, the state judicial ethics agency. She received her B.A. from Duke University in 1991, her J.D. from Fordham University in 1995, and her LL.M. from Georgetown University in 2010.