Heather Strack served as a fellow to Colorado Supreme Court Justice Monica Márquez before joining The Harris Law Firm. Strack practices family law and specializes in cases involving children. She married fellow alum, Bryan McCutcheon ('11), in July 2014.
Tell us a little about your work. What do you do, and what might a “typical” work day look like?
I am an attorney with The Harris Law Firm, P.C., Colorado’s largest family law firm. We only practice Colorado family law litigation. We have about 20 attorneys, and I work in the downtown Denver office. I have about 20-30 cases at any given time. Increasingly, I specialize in complicated child custody cases (between married and never-married parties), cases with complicated jurisdiction issues, post-decree modifications of parenting time, dependency and neglect cases, GLBTQ cases and civil unions, and appeals. I have also worked on several high-asset divorce cases, cases with family-owned businesses, business and income valuations, and litigated issues concerning complicated retirement accounts and pension plans. I’m on the firm’s recruiting committee and help recruit and interview new attorneys as well. I volunteer with Metro Volunteer Lawyers and the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center. I also help teach high school students about hate crimes through the Colorado Lawyer’s Committee, volunteer at Mi Casa’s Legal Night, volunteer for the Denver Bar Associations Family Law Legal Night, and volunteer for Family Tree which provides services to victims of domestic violence.
My days really vary so much that it is better to look at what my average work month looks like. In general, I have at least one temporary orders hearing and one permanent orders hearing scheduled in any given month. I practice all over the state. Right now, my cases reach as far north as Weld County and as far south as Rio Grande County. I schedule mediations as appropriate for my cases, but normally have at least one mediation a month. At the same time, I am constantly meeting new clients: I retain about two to four new clients a month, and I attend and work with potential clients in one-hour consultations. At any given time, I have cases that I am wrapping up, settling, preparing for litigation, conducting discovery, and beginning, all at the same time. Except for fixed appointments (mediation, court appointments, and client meetings) the rest of my day is filled up with drafting and responding to motions, emails or phone calls with clients, and emails or phone calls with opposing counsels.
My typical work days are actually a lot like the pattern I got used to in law school. In law school, for many days, you wake up and go to school and complete day-to-day work with meetings or networking events here and there. It is the same for me with work. In law school, you pick a few extracurricular activities to invest in. It is the same now with board memberships, pro bono work, and association involvement. In law school, occasionally, you go to school for a mock trial or final where everything is on the line. It is the same for me with work; occasionally, I go to work where everything is on the line for my clients. Preparing for trial is a lot like preparing for a final in terms of intensity; but, I go to trial more often than I took finals!
How did you find your job?
I am forever indebted to the way the cosmos aligned with my job search. I had worked with and got to know Professor Calhoun and Professor Hart in law school. Everyone kept saying, “You have to meet Ed Ramey… you have to meet Ed Ramey.” Ed is not only a Colorado Law alum but also a Dartmouth alum (my alma mater). So, finally, with Professor Hart’s finesse, Ed Ramey, another partner at his firm—Kevin Paul, Professor Hart’s husband, another Colorado Law alum (Saskia Jordan), and I all met for a happy hour. After that, Ed and I met regularly to discuss and guide my job search. He really encouraged me to more seriously consider family law and, when I was ready to dive head first into the practice, he set me up for lunch with John Tatlock. John is Special Counsel here at The Harris Law Firm. I had also applied for a job here and received a thanks-but-not-now standard email from the firm before I met with John. Then, after I met with John, all of a sudden I had an interview with Rich Harris and within two weeks I had a job offer!
How did Colorado Law help you in your job search?
Well, it all started with Professor Bruff. As a general life rule, if Professor Bruff tells you to do something, you should just do it. He went to my high school and was my professor in constitutional law. He told me to take family law my 2L fall, so I did. Then, to my surprise, I got the highest grade in the class, and I actually GOT it. I did not just casually understand it, but I was interested. I thought that I did not want to practice family law. I was focused on civil rights litigation. But, I met with my family law professor who said, wisely, “You don’t know what the economy will be like when you graduate. You are going to take these courses anyways, why don’t you get a Certificate in Juvenile and Family Law. You’ll be able to get it with honors, too, which will help your job prospects.” So I did. It did not require a lot of changes to my law school plan, and I figured I could always work with non-traditional family rights within civil rights litigation. Even after graduation, I said I didn’t want to practice family law. But, I’m so happy that I did. Now that I think about it, I never got bad advice from a professor at Colorado Law (or from Dean Leary).
After graduation and taking the bar, I began looking for a job and moved back home with my parents, although I quickly moved out to my own apartment. To my surprise, I applied for and received a fellowship with Justice Márquez of the Colorado Supreme Court. I was able to do meaningful work with an important mentor while I networked and more seriously considered my career for six months. I drained what was left of my law school student loans, but I was able to really take the time to find a job that fulfills me. During that fellowship, I really honed in on what I wanted: (1) I wanted to work in a team environment in a larger firm; (2) I wanted to represent people and not corporations; and (3) I wanted to litigate. After honing down my priorities, I began to consider the practical application of these priorities and was able to narrow in on a family law practice at a large firm.
Please talk a little about “people skills” and networking specifically. How has your professional network made a difference in your career?
Networking is crucial to my career. It is the only way I got a job. I can guarantee I would not have this job without networking. But networking does not end once you get a job. It’s so easy to forget that and settle into your routine work and personal life. For me, networking is of ongoing importance as I am expected to be involved in my community and generate client referrals. You do not generate client referrals by making conflict in families—you generate client referrals by being active in your community so that when someone needs help, the person they talk to knows your name and that you are the best in the business. For me, networking seems natural. But, even if it is not natural, I think it is crucial as an attorney. Most of my referrals come from other attorneys. The only way to meet other attorneys is to network. Even if it is not as important as it is in my practice, if you are going to practice law, you are going to be asked by a client for a referral to a different attorney for a different issue. It’s helpful to be able to answer those client questions!
What advice would you give to current students with respect to finding a job?
My advice really centers around two themes: the practicalities of finding a job and the theory of job selection. Practically, I review cover letters and resumes as part of our firm’s recruiting committee. If there is a typo anywhere, I will not read any further and will just assume you do not care enough about the work product you are putting out. In my job, I have to efficiently and quickly communicate in writing, and it is important to be able to do so without typos which distract from your communication. You cannot bill the client just because you cannot get out an email without editing it three times. We review so many applications and really have our pick of who we hire—typos are the easiest way to get eliminated. Also, if you use the word “this” without a noun or a phrase afterwards, I won’t read any further. With all that said, I do not really pay any attention to writing samples. Other people on the committee do. I think that is a personal preference, but I know the samples are so heavily edited that they are not a helpful representation of your work product. The cover letter is a better example of what the applicant can actually produce. Further, I do not understand why people send out two page resumes. I think a two-page resume shows narcissism. There is no way that you have two pages of information relevant to this job. I’d say at least half of our applicants have two page resumes.
Theoretically, I think law students are too consumed with finding the perfect job. I know that I was, and I believe the social pressure encouraged me to be obsessed with finding the perfect job. I was also very concerned with having only one perfect version of me for every job. Here’s the thing: there is no such thing. You can be a different version of yourself for each job, and no job will ever be perfect. I’m so happy I took the random jobs I did. The jobs seemed disconnected at the time (I clerked for the Supreme Court of Ghana, interned for a federal magistrate, worked for a solo criminal defense/federal litigation practitioner, externed for Killmer, Lane, & Newmann, and fellowed for Justice Márquez), but it set me up perfectly for a career in family law litigation. My practice intersects with all the areas that I worked in previously, and it helps me quickly understand and spot intersecting jurisdiction, business, criminal, immigration, and appellate issues. The most important thing is to know what you don’t know and then be able to confidently ask questions before they become an issue; my varied job experience enabled me to ask the right questions now.
If you were to recommend Colorado Law to a potential law student, what would you say?
So much of why I went to Colorado Law had to do with my family, but so much of why I was happy with Colorado Law was the community. I had several close friends going through law school at the same time as me, and our environments were just so different. The friends would come and visit me and meet with my friends here. The friends from other law schools would all leave saying, “I wish my law school was like Colorado Law.” People are actually nice at Colorado Law. People care about your success at Colorado Law. People understand that one person’s success does not limit anyone else’s success. I really felt that, at Colorado Law, the marketing pitch about community was reality, and the community made the biggest difference in the world to surviving law school healthy and intact. I do not think I ever felt that the competition that is so typical in law schools was present at Colorado Law.