March 25, 2020 Voices

I Had a Plan

By Tracey Mihelic

I had a plan. I went to college and then straight to law school. My plan was to be a partner at a law firm—forever. I joined a firm, got married, waited to have kids, made partner, and had two kids. I moved to a larger firm and had two more kids. I thought life might be easier as an in-house counsel. I moved to another state with four kids ages five and under. As an in-house counsel, I never worked harder in my life.

A year later, I learned my two-year-old daughter could not speak. She could not say “mmm,” much less “mom.” My career was on track. My plan was to be general counsel. So, I found a speech school, handed my daughter to my husband, and asked him to take care of the situation. I kept traveling and came home on weekends or for a few weeks at a time. A year later, my daughter still could not say “mmm” or “mom.” She used pictures instead of words to communicate. I realized that my husband was raising four kids alone, one who was now labeled “special needs.”

I took a few weeks off to take my daughter to experts around the country. Not one would accept her into their practice. Speech schools also refused to admit her. Then we discovered the “speech whisperer,” a tiny woman with a school in our backyard (okay, 1.5 miles away). Her school was for children no one else wanted. My husband and I were told the woman worked miracles. We enrolled my daughter, and I went back to work.

The speech whisperer told me my daughter needed more of my attention. I quit work, and I believed my 17-year career was over. My family took our first real vacation in years. On the beaches of Costa Rica, my daughter said, “I see a boat.” We came home, sold everything, and moved there. The plan was to live there for two years.

While on the beach one day, a former client called and asked me to review contracts. I said I was an environmental lawyer living in Costa Rica. He did not care. Then a former partner called and asked for help on a deal. I was suddenly drafting contracts for forestry and renewable energy projects—from Costa Rica. Two years became five.

In year five, my client informed me its general counsel was leaving. They wanted me to move back to the states. We did. I was finally “general counsel.” For a minute. The former general counsel, whom I had replaced, lost his new job because new owners took over that business. He asked my employer if he could have his old job back and, because he was family, they gave it to him. I thought my career was over—again. But then the renewable energy client called. She needed counsel. I changed my plan and opened a solo law practice.

Four years later, with too much work, three sons in college, and a 16-year-old who did not need me “at all,” a headhunter called. A firm in the Midwest was looking for a renewable energy lawyer. I laughed, said no . . . , but then said why not. I was starting over, again, not as general counsel, not as partner. Senior counsel (I’m still uncomfortable with that title). A year later, I find myself opening a new office for this firm in Salt Lake City. Another new plan.

Careers go up, down, and sideways. I have learned that when a job ends, a career does not. I have learned that I can practice law anywhere and change what I practice. I no longer fear taking time off, changing course, or even being fired (well, maybe a little of the latter). I have learned that it is okay to change the plan or have the plan changed for me. Life really does work itself out, as long as I remain flexible and open to what it offers.

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By Tracey Mihelic

Tracey Mihelic is currently an attorney with Husch Blackwell based out of the newly-opened Salt Lake City, Utah, office. She focuses on assisting clients with the development, acquisitions, and sales of renewable energy projects, while also enjoying the great outdoors.