When we find ourselves in rooms with powerful, smart, and accomplished women, we take notes. Lots of notes. That’s why when we met Kelly Noonan, Attorney and Managing Partner at Seattle law firm Stokes Lawrence, we had our pens and notebooks in hand and were ready to learn. Kelly blew us away with her thoughtfulness, generosity, and keen observations. From sharing the greatest lessons she’s learned being an attorney to describing her involvement with a neighborhood legal clinic, Kelly is extremely knowledgeable in her line of work and engaged with her community. For anyone interested in a career in law, definitely take what Kelly says into consideration (if you’re starting your law school applications you’ll be especially grateful!). Her piece of advice that we still carry with us to this day: “Try to keep your eyes open and learn as much as you can from every experience.” Now, get ready to take some notes!
Name: Kelly Noonan
Education: BA in English from University of Notre Dame; Doctor of Law (JD) from University of Washington School of Law; Executive Development Program at University of Washington Foster School of Business
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?
Kelly Noonan: There are opportunities throughout your life, and I don’t think they necessarily go away when you get older. But certainly, some opportunities are much easier to seize when you are young than when you are older. When you have more long-term financial obligations, when you have a family, when you have commitments and responsibilities that are deeper and more long-term to your community, career, and your family, it becomes harder to pivot. It’s a bit easier to explore and take chances when you are younger.
CJ: Prior to going to law school, you received your undergrad degree in English at the University of Notre Dame. Was law school part of your plans during college?
KN: No. I changed my major a number of times while I was in college. I settled on English, which was a very good choice for me. I was pretty sure I would go to graduate school, but I hadn’t settled on what I would pursue. I considered a number of possibilities. I worked for a year between undergrad and law school, and gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to do long-term.
I thought about what I really like to do and what kind of environment I wanted. I decided that I like studying, learning, and the academic process. Being a lawyer involves a lot of that. You don’t learn “the law” and then go out and apply it. Law is constantly evolving and changing, and almost every case requires that you learn some nuance of law and how it applies to your client’s circumstances.
I also like being surrounded by other people who are intellectually curious and who are interested in growing and developing. I also wanted a career where I could help people, maybe change lives because I had a skill that is desperately needed. I hoped to have some autonomy in creating the career I wanted. I feel fortunate because over time all of these qualities I wanted in a career have proven to be true.
CJ: Studying for the LSAT is not an easy process. What was your experience with the test prep? What tips do you have for those interested in signing up for the LSAT? (How long in advance did you begin studying? Did you take a course? How did you balance studying for the LSAT with your college coursework?)
KN: I did not take the LSAT during college. I took the GRE and the GMAT while I was in college. I took the LSAT in the fall after I graduated from college. I didn’t take a course because I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t have a lot of time with my full-time job. I bought a book and worked through it. I was pretty disciplined. When I knew my test date, I broke the book down into sections and studied a bit every day.
While it’s not how I did it, I would advise taking a course, especially if you’re someone who finds standardized tests challenging. The LSAT is like the SAT on steroids. The process of preparing for and applying to law school is not all that different than the process of applying to college.
CJ: Besides working hard to get a good score on the LSAT, what did you do to prepare for the law school application? Is there anything you wish you had known or that you would have done differently?
KN: The more you can learn about what lawyers do, the better. Talk to as many lawyers as you can – criminal lawyers, commercial lawyers, transactional lawyers, people who work in companies, etc. – because it will help inform your thinking.
It’s not uncommon for people who are interested in going to law school to get an entry level job in a law firm. A lot of people have come through my firm who have been thinking about law school. Some of them have gone on to law school and some have changed their minds and taken a different path. Law school is competitive and expensive, and the job market is highly competitive. The financial commitment to go to law school today is far greater than when I went.
If you are considering law school, be very clear about why you want to be a lawyer. Law school is a trade school. I would not advise going to law school because it is a good foundation for something other than being a lawyer. It’s true that law school provides a strong foundation in logic, research, analysis and clear communications, all skills that have application beyond law, but the mission of law schools is to train future lawyers. Unless you have unlimited funds and time, go to law school only because you want to be a lawyer.
When applying to law schools, be as clear as you can about what you want. You don’t have to know what kind of law you want to practice, but knowing why you want to go and communicating that clearly in writing is valuable. If you can’t do that, then think twice about why you’re doing this. Tell the people you are asking for recommendations why you want to go to law school, what you hope to gain, and what you hope to contribute to the community. It will make it easier for them to provide personalized, positive references.
CJ: What do you think are the advantages and/or disadvantages of going to law school right after undergrad versus getting work experience?
KN: I think either approach can be okay. I have a bias in favor of working for a while before you go to graduate school, and not just law school. Having some non-academic experiences is helpful in a number of different ways. It can help you figure out what you want
In the second and third year of law school you get more practical experiences, but if your experiences before law school were only academic, your frame of reference is more limited, and understanding how the theory works in the real world can be a bit mysterious. When you have had a chance to step away from the academic, you may bring more to your classwork, get more out of your experience, and your motivations are clearer. As far as what to do in between undergrad and law school, I don’t think you need to work in a law firm or in some other law-oriented job, although that has the advantage of giving you some insight into what lawyers do day-to-day. Serving in the Peace Corp, working for a company or nonprofit or working in the public sector are all valuable, as well. The point is to step away from academic life for a time.
With all that said, there are many fantastic lawyers who have gone straight through from undergrad to law school.
CJ: You are the Managing Shareholder at Stokes Lawrence. What does your role as Managing Shareholder entail?
KN: A law firm is a business, and somebody needs to be focused primarily on running the business. That person is me. My focus is on managing the business of the law firm, similar to the CEO of a company.
I started phasing out of the active practice of law about six or seven years ago. I spend my time focused on our strategies, the competitive environment, how to provide our services so that we are helping our clients to make decisions and succeed, how to train, mentor and develop our people, what we can do to make sure we remain successful and viable, how to maintain a positive and productive firm culture, and what we need to do to satisfy our obligations in the community. I work closely with our administrative managers including Finance and Accounting, IT, Human Resources, Marketing and the administrative practice teams. I love it.
CJ: You’re phasing out of the active practice of law, but when you did practice law, you focused on business advising and commercial litigation with an emphasis on consumer class action defense and advertising and consumer law. How did you choose these topics to practice?
KN: I had a preference for trial work, litigation and working with clients to resolve disputes rather than a transactional business practice. When I started practice, I knew those were my preferences, but there’s a lot of training and learning that occurs once you get out of law school, almost like an apprenticeship. I was trained and mentored by more senior attorneys and they really taught me how to do my job. I became a commercial litigator in part because that’s what I wanted to do, but the emphasis on class actions and advertising and consumer law were driven in large part by our client base and the help they needed. I liked balancing the advisory work with litigation. I am still a lawyer and I still do some advisory work, but all of my litigation matters have phased out.
CJ: What are the greatest lessons you have learned from being an attorney?
KN: Recognizing that a lot of situations are gray. Very rarely are situations black or white. If it is, frankly, then people don’t need the services of a lawyer. The world we work in as lawyers is many of shades of gray. The law doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in relation to the facts and the circumstances of real life people, real life companies, and real world situations that don’t organize themselves neatly. It’s something I continue to learn as a lawyer.
One of the real privileges as a lawyer is to be able to take a client’s situation and help craft the right approach so they can achieve their goals. There’s not always one path, and it’s not necessarily the most obvious path. It’s critically important to keep your eyes and ears wide open to recognize the opportunities, the potentials, and the pitfalls that maybe aren’t obvious. You need to have a broad perspective but always have your eye on the goal.
CJ: You are a member of the peer mentoring organization, Women Presidents’ Organization, a non-profit formed to improve business conditions for women entrepreneurs. How did you get involved with this organization and what is your role?
KN: Women President’s Organization is a peer mentoring group, and I got involved with it five or six years ago. It’s a terrific organization with chapters around the world. Each chapter is composed of about 20 women who are the owner, CEO or president of their mid-size company. We are in a variety of industries. We meet monthly and have confidential discussions about the business and leadership issues we face. Being part of this organization has really helped me to hone my leadership skills.
I also belong to a WPO Platinum chapter for larger businesses, and this group involves women from throughout North America. I get something different out of each group, and both are valuable in helping me to increase my skills and effectiveness in managing the firm. No matter what you’re doing or what your stage in life, having a peer group is so helpful. A study group in college or grad school can help you learn from others’ experiences and create connections with others in a similar situation.
CJ: You also volunteer regularly at the King County Bar Association Downtown Neighborhood Legal Clinic. How did you choose to get involved with this?
KN: I’ve done a variety of pro-bono work over the years, but I was finding it more difficult to take on pro-bono cases with my other case loads and responsibilities. The Neighborhood Legal Clinic is a great opportunity to volunteer your time and skills to people who really need your help, and the time commitment is fixed. I work at the clinic about once a month for two hours at the King County Courthouse. King County residents can make an appointment to meet with a lawyer for 30 minutes.
Clinic clients are generally very prepared, and an extremely concentrated 30 minutes of helping people with a variety of issues.
CJ: What should a teenager or young adult who wants to be a lawyer do now to set themselves up for success?
KN: Being a good communicator – both verbally and in writing – is a critical skill. The ability to organize your thoughts, combine logic with emotion, and put these thoughts into writing is necessary. If you can do that in writing, you have a good foundation for verbal communications. It’s not about being the loudest debater. Great lawyers are clear thinkers who enjoy the analytical process and who can take different sides of the same issue and make a compelling argument.
If you think you might want to be a lawyer, develop these skills. Take classes where you will be challenged and where you will work on critical reasoning and analytical skills, and where you will communicate and defend your ideas in writing and verbally. Hone these skills. Read with an eye towards understanding the logic involved in an editorial or opinion piece. Be an active learner and enjoy the academic process.
CJ: What was the last book that you read?
KN: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
KN: I remember thinking I had to have a plan when I graduated college. Nobody told me that, but I felt I had to get going right away in my “real” life. I would tell my younger self: don’t be in such a hurry to figure out what you’re going to become. The true is, we don’t someday arrive at our adult selves. That’s not the way it works. It’s a journey. There are a lot of steps on the journey. Pay attention to the steps along the way.
After college I got a job as a bill collector, and I remember at the time almost being embarrassed. I felt like I wasn’t taking advantage of my education. When I look back on that job, though, I realize I learned a lot, and some of the skills and lessons I learned carry over today.
It’s amazing what happens when you do your best and try to contribute as much as you can. Try to keep your eyes open and learn as much as you can from every experience. It’s amazing what doors open that you never even knew existed. Be alert enough to recognize opportunities when they come along and to learn from all of your experiences, even if they’re short term or difficult.
Don’t be in a hurry, but don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Sometimes you just have to jump in and see what happens.