March 01, 2018 GPSolo

A Family Lawyer’s Story

By Elise F. Buie

I am a family law attorney and guardian ad litem who owns a family law firm in downtown Seattle, Washington. Employing three other attorneys, a paralegal, and an office manager/executive assistant, I successfully maintain a practice that has four legs to it: guardian ad litem work, divorce proceedings (including litigation and collaborative law), marital agreements (pre-nups and post-nups), and the representation of parents whose children have been removed from their home owing to abuse or neglect (this dependency work is performed under a contract with the office of public defense).

My average client is a parent. More specifically, my average client is a parent who wants a divorce or who has been served with a divorce, a parent whose child has been removed from the home, or a parent who is embroiled in an extremely high conflict divorce requiring the services of a guardian ad litem. So being a family law attorney can be really tough. With every case, you become embedded in some of the most difficult moments in your clients’ lives, and there are usually children right at the center of it all. But for me, it’s this difficult emotional space that, time and time again, proves to be one of my favorite parts of the job: I love getting to know people at their very worst and helping them discover who they can be at their very best. I also love educating parents on how they can be the very best parents for their children, even while going through a painful family transition. When we do our jobs right, family law attorneys empower people to see divorce as a stepping stone to their next best selves, rather than as an end to everything good they know.

Why Family Law?

I first decided that I wanted to be an attorney in my early childhood. Of course, like many professionals, I did take some detours. There was that moment in college when I began pursuing the career path of a biomedical engineer, and there was a brief period when I was sure that I should be a psychologist. Yet despite these early flirtations with other career possibilities, the desire to be an attorney was a constant in my life and pulled me through to where I am now. While there are many moments in the daily world of a family attorney when the practical experience of being a lawyer and being a psychologist feel more alike than my younger self might have guessed, I have never doubted that I made the right choice.

Still, the decision to become a family lawyer came as a bit of a surprise. Initially, as a law student, I wanted to defend prisoners on death row. I worked as a federal judicial law clerk and believed that I would become an expert on constitutional criminal law over the course of my career. Clerking for a hard-working federal judge was a great fit, and the experience made a huge impression on me. We met every Sunday night to prepare for trials, and I learned the value of working hard, always working toward a settlement, and never cutting corners. I also learned that one can’t assume anything in law. I was constantly challenged while clerking, but there was a lot of humor in those chambers and a true spirit of excellence that continues to propel my practice.

As much as I loved this early experience, however, the reality of having student loans amounting to $200,000 hit me right out of law school. I realized that I needed to earn a good wage as soon as possible. So, I went into insurance defense litigation to maximize my earnings and immediately reoriented my goals to become a partner in a large insurance defense firm in New Orleans. Although it was not the career path I had originally intended, things were going well in my professional life. That is, they were going well right up to the moment that I was faced with the kind of ethical dilemma during a particularly difficult case that I knew would repeat itself in years to come. At the time it felt like a sign. I had been slowly coming to the realization that I needed to be home more with my kids, so I transformed my ethical dilemma at work into an opportunity to spend six years raising and homeschooling my children (and giving birth to kids numbers three and four).

But then the hurricane hit, in more ways than one. Right around the time that Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, I began the painful process of contemplating a divorce. About the same time, one of my close friends, a single mom with six kids, was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer. A lot changed in a short period of time. My family and I were forced to evacuate the city we had known and loved for many years. First we went to Georgia, then to Minnesota. In addition, we all spent a lot of time helping my friend and her family prepare for her impending death, including managing a food delivery system that started before Hurricane Katrina and continued until her death in January 2008. I will never forget how amazing the kindness and generosity of others can be. In the midst of all this, my impending divorce made it clear that the time also had come to re-enter the legal profession, although I knew that I wanted to change specialties after my experience in insurance defense litigation. By this point, however, I had invested thousands of hours learning the ins and outs of family law in anticipation of my own divorce, so at least one thing seemed straightforward: family law felt like the natural next step in my life and in my career.

A New Career in a New Town

But nothing is ever quite that simple, is it? I was trying to find a job in Minnesota after six years away from the traditional workforce, in a new specialty, and in a new city. I went to every CLE and every networking and mentoring event possible. I studied for the Minnesota Bar Exam from 4:00 am to 7:00 am before going to my part-time job as a “permanent substitute teacher” at a school for troubled youth. If ever there was a moment for that grit I had learned while clerking for the federal judge, this was it. But still, at every job for which I applied, I was told that I was “too qualified for an entry associate position.” With no contacts and no experience in Minnesota, my options felt more limited than I had hoped. Then, after many months of applications, I was hired by the Tenth Judicial District as a guardian ad litem and learned how to effectively supplement that work with my own family law practice. In addition, just as work was taking off, love unexpectedly struck.

In the end, two circumstances aligned to bring me to where I am today. The first was my new, impending reality: I had to become financially independent and fast, while acting as primary residential parent to my four kids. The second was that I began a long-distance relationship with a former friend and neighbor, Doug, which grew very serious very quickly. We began to consider the best way for us to blend a total of six children into a combined family with minimal disruption to the kids based on their ages, grades in school, and natural transition points. Luckily for us, our kids had known each other for years, as we had been neighbors in New Orleans and had stayed in touch over the last ten years.

The end result of all these life changes was a wild, unexpected new beginning: Doug and I married, the children and I moved to Seattle in 2011, I took the Washington bar exam in early 2012, and, thereafter, I worked in various legal positions until I opened Elise Buie Family Law Group in 2015.

I have not looked back since becoming a family law attorney and opening my own firm. Although the personal and professional trajectory that led me here was not always easy, my experiences have had a profound effect on my ability and desire to be excellent at what I do. Since moving to Seattle, I have continued to raise four children while growing a successful legal practice. I deal with standard family law issues in my personal life, such as relocation, child support issues, co-parenting issues, and blended family dynamics, and show up every day to help my clients successfully navigate their own lives. Being a family member as well as a family lawyer has taught me to walk the walk to be a better ex, a better co-parent, a better mom, and a better stepmom. And yes, an awesome lawyer.

Helping Clients and Their Families

My own career path has also informed the basic character and structure of my firm. Because I know what it is like to need amazing and knowledgeable support during big family-life transitions, I hire the kind of attorneys that I would have wanted at my side while I went through the process of divorce. I hire extremely dedicated attorneys who are not only committed to the highest caliber of client service, but who are truly determined to excel at their work and adhere to their ethics. I also seek out young parents who are striving to find a balance between work and life. Young parents are some of the hardest-working professionals I know, and they are able to approach their family law work with children’s welfare at the very top of their priorities.

At its best, being a family law attorney gives me opportunities to help people in difficult circumstances be their best selves even as they struggle to see the light of hope on the far side. A big part of my practice is helping clients make good decisions that come from a place of understanding toward other adults in the room, as well as a clear sense of how their choices impact their children. When clients call me up to demand we take certain legal action, I always ask them, “How will this decision impact your kids? How will it affect your relationship with your kids, or your spouse’s relationship with the kids?” Many times, they have no answer because they have not given it any thought. So, our first plan of action is always for them to consider the broader repercussions of their decision making. And on a perfect day at the office, I get to watch as clients have that “aha” moment—that split second when they recognize that they have painlessly made a better choice than they would have made if they had led with anger, spite, or a desire for revenge.

Not all days are perfect days. Most aren’t. In family law, every day presents a new set of circumstances and a new landscape of emotional quagmires with the potential for deep sadness. There are moments that have changed me forever and that have shaped my practice every bit as strongly as the hope and the aspirations I nurture at the beginning of every new client relationship. I was involved in a domestic violence case in Minnesota as a guardian ad litem, for example, that still haunts me. The perpetrator killed his wife, his kids, and then himself in a Subway sandwich shop. In more recent cases, I have witnessed parents engage in shocking criminal behaviors, including kidnapping, armed robbery, and conspiracy to kill their ex. Cases such as these inevitably impact even the most veteran of family attorneys, lingering in our memories and shaping our risk assessment. There are days when all I want to do is rock babies at Children’s Hospital and adopt shelter puppies to add to our current menagerie of two dogs and three cats. Of course, a good bet against finding myself at the animal shelter is doing excellent work and staying current on the relevant research. But in family law, as in many legal specialties, the best bet is that people will always find a way to positively surprise you, especially once they become educated about the impact of their behavior on their children.

In fact, most bad days at the office are balanced out by the really good moments. There are certainly days when clients spew their venom in my direction, leaving me the task of absorbing it, hearing it, and helping them to redirect it productively. But more often than not, I am buoyed by the wonderful sense of trust and compassion that develops when everyone tries their hardest to interact with integrity, empathy, humor, and accountability. Still, whether a day is filled with roadblocks or triumphs, being a family law attorney can leave you a bit battered emotionally. I had no idea when I was first starting out in this specialty that it would require so much emotional intelligence in every moment of every day. So, I try to keep things in perspective, reminding myself that I am often meeting great people at their very lowest point. More than ever, they need compassion and understanding, and it is my privilege to be able to give it—even if I end my day emotionally spent and in need of a good recharge.

While practicing family law has proved a true calling for me professionally, the choice to open my own firm has also paved the way for enormous personal growth and satisfaction. I was extremely nervous at first, but my nerves lost their edge after we achieved rapid success and growth. In addition to being proud of my legal work and professional growth opportunities, I get to be proud of building a firm from the ground up and enjoy the process of relentlessly learning every business aspect of running it. My specialty and my firm have provided me with the freedom to take the clients I want to work with and to develop practice areas that suit my values and personality. They also have allowed me the financial security and the work-life balance to be the mother, co-parent, and spouse that I aspire to be. I have been able to provide my children with excellent educational opportunities across the United States, and, with one football player in Seattle and one in Connecticut, I even get to fly back and forth to continue being a “football mom” on the weekends.

Being a family law attorney has allowed me to focus on what I care about most: families and children. Representing people in their toughest moments is not always fun, and it rarely provides the humor that I try so hard to retain, but it allows me to help people in deeply meaningful ways. I help people come out of their divorce able to see hope and possibilities, I help them to become more financially savvy as they figure out their next steps, and I help them overcome emotional upset and anger so they can put their kids’ best interests ahead of their own. I often joke that I am part attorney, part life coach, and part best friend (the kind that tells you the blunt truth). But it’s not really a joke. This is who I am and what I do as a family law attorney, and it has made for a wonderful life.

Elise F. Buie

Elise F. Buie is the founder and principal of Elise Buie Family Law Group, PLLC. Her practice focuses on family law, dependency, prenuptial agreements, and guardian ad litem work. She strives to help clients resolve disputes outside of court action; educate clients on effective, respectful co-parenting skills; preserve civility and respect during the divorce process; and find workable, individual solutions for the families she serves, realizing that a marriage might be over but a family still stands.