Clay Feet by Sandra M. Rohrstaff, Esq.

Sandra M. Rohrstaff, Esq.I love to cook. Whenever I get the chance to be at home for a day, I naturally drift into the kitchen, grab pots and pans, and start cooking. (I also love chopping, especially after particularly difficult days in my practice, but that’s probably a different story.) I also read cookbooks and enjoy learning about the cooks who wrote them. You may not have heard of Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. Ina has owned a successful restaurant, has a TV show, and several cookbooks.  When she decided as a young adult to design her own life, she had, by her own account, what sounded like impossible criteria:

  • She insisted on only doing something she was passionate about.
  • She wanted to “make some money.”
  • She wanted no employees.
  • She wanted to be able to drop it all and go to Paris at a moment’s notice.

Some might say — and I imagine many did — that such a life doesn’t exist. But Ina proved them wrong. She checked off all four items within ten years.

Her definition of success is to “do what you really love and do it in a way you want to do it.” Her definition may not be my definition, but the fact that she made it happen was impressive to me.

I grew up in a little (or as we say in Texas, “little bitty”) country town in south Texas. My father was the high school football coach (that means, he and God were running neck-and-neck in the “what’s most important in your life” contest). I have three brothers, all of whom played football. I played flute in the band and took home-ec courses, where I learned to love cooking. I was determined to be a girl.

But, being a girl in Somerset, Texas was not the easiest circumstance in which to find oneself. We lived right next to the school, and our back yard was really the entire school yard, most of which was hard caliche clay. Caliche is a lot like cement, except it’s not mixed and poured out of the back of a cement mixer. It’s just there, all over the place. Making anything grow in caliche, including grass, is a challenge.  It was hard to dig holes for playing marbles, and I was not a pretty sight after crawling around on the ground for hours. I have no idea how my mother ever got our clothes clean.

I knew at an early age that I was not destined to stay in Somerset. I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I practiced twirling my baton in my back yard on the caliche and dreamed. I spent a lot of time in Somerset getting ready for life.

After I graduated from high school, my family moved to San Antonio, I went off to college and then on to other things – coming to Virginia, for instance --  and have returned to Somerset only once or twice, although my father has stayed in touch with folks there and returned several times over the years. When I was in San Antonio last November, I took my father to Somerset for the annual November 11th parade and football game and reunion. Even though he is slower and stooped and  eighty-nine years old, my father is still “Coach”. He was honored by townspeople (I don’t think Somerset has had a winning football season since he left) and, especially, by my high school classmates. I enjoyed getting to catch up on people’s lives and hear their stories and eat good barbecue.

But what really struck me was the caliche. It’s still as hard as cement, and the town isn’t any greener than when I lived there. But what I had not noticed growing up is that people set down roots and make good lives there. We may not have the same definition of success as people who live in Somerset, but what I saw in my classmates was that they had done things the way they wanted. They had farms and friends and families. They had businesses where they had worked hard. Many had traveled to faraway places and some had achieved some degree of wealth. I admired them in ways I did not expect.

Many of us live our lives getting ready to do something – to take that great vacation, to win that big case, to become partner in a prestigious law firm, to retire. What’s the one excuse most people use for not getting done what they claim they want to get done? 

               I’ll do it right after this next trial.
               I’m trying to get away next April during the kids’ spring break.
               I don’t have time right now.

The truth is, now is the only time we have, but lawyers seem especially bad at spending it wisely. Our profession is known for burnout. Lawyers get ulcers and abuse drugs and alcohol. We spend lots of time at the office because we have clients who depend on us and judges to persuade and opposing counsel who want to keep us from succeeding. 

Being a trial lawyer isn’t easy, but it ought not take over our lives. (Our lack of balance is responsible for spawning an entire industry. I Googled “life coach lawyers” and got pages and pages of results.) Some of the best lawyers I know regularly take time to pursue other interests. We are marathon runners, bikers, hikers, mountain climbers, surfers, teachers, artists, singers, high school girls basketball coaches, sheep herders, writers, and boat builders.

When I was young and impertinent and would make some outlandish remark to my father about my intentions, he’d say, “Think again, young lady.”  Well, I’m saying it to myself now.  If I think I don’t have time to take a day for thinking, then I need to think again, because the truth is, I really need that day. It’s simple, really.  Just do it.

It’s what Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back: “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.


© 2010 Sandra M. Rohrstaff, Esq.

Sandra M. Rohrstaff, Esq. is a partner of Weiner, Rohrstaff & Spivey, PLC in Fairfax, VA. Ms. Rohrstaff is Immediate Past President of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, on whose Board of Governors she has served since 1996. She is a Past President of the Foundation of the Alexandria Bar Association, an organization that develops programs that benefit citizens, and of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association. She also is a member of the America Association for Justice, which is devoted to protecting individual rights and preserving the civil jury system in America. 

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Updated: Apr 16, 2010