June 17, 2010

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A family of lawyers, but first a family

Kate McGrath (second from the left) stands with her daughters (from left), Susan Valinis, Terri Gillespie and Mary Kate McGrath. Kate returned to law school when she was 40, and her daughters found their way there as well.  All four are practicing lawyers, and Valinis, Gillespie and McGrath were named 2010 Pennsylvania Rising Stars in Philadelphia Magazine this month. (Photo by Paula Riley)

It was the first day of school. The year was 1986. Terri was adjusting her 1st-grade uniform. Her big sister, Susie, was wondering if her 6th-grade friends would be in her junior high homeroom. The eldest, Mary Kate, was curious about what the first day of high school would be like.

Alongside the excited sisters stood their mother, who, like her daughters, was starting school that morning. It was the first day of Villanova University Law School for Kate McGrath. She was 40 years old.

In the flurry and excitement of that warm September morning, there was little indication that the education the four began that day would result in a family of successful lawyers. Today, all four McGrath women are lawyers. Three have been named “2010 Pennsylvania Rising Stars” by Philadelphia Magazine (June, 2010).

Susie said the career choice for the McGrath women was, perhaps, a perfect fit.

“Whether we initially agreed or not, our parents knew each of us and knew the best path for each of us,” she said. “Maybe we don’t have much imagination, but it turned out to be the same path. Though we may be perfectly lovely in some ways, fundamentally, we are three argumentative, stubborn and willful girls – of course we are litigators. What else could we be?”

Kate’s road to Villanova Law began 17 years earlier when she had to drop out of her first year at Temple Law School because of complications with her pregnancy. The young newlywed with dreams of becoming a member of the bar had to put those dreams on hold. Instead, she became mother to three daughters and took a position teaching English at Northeast Catholic High School. She was the first female teacher at the school.

The McGrath family had to make some adjustments when Kate decided to go back to school. The first time she returned home late, she found the girls sitting in the living room.

“I guess they didn’t know what to do,” she said, laughing. “They were all sitting around waiting for me to cook them dinner.”

Susie and Mary Kate quickly learned how to prepare some basic meals and pitched in with household chores.

But the girls couldn’t help do everything. Kate’s three years of Villanova Law were punctuated by family homework sessions at the dining room table, reading briefs during Mary Kate’s play practice and studying for exams after Susie’s basketball games.

Kate’s parents and her husband, Joe, had always been her strongest supporters. They helped with laundry, driving girls to different school events and numerous hours watching the kids while she studied. Most of all, they kept her spirits from flagging.

“You can do it!” they assured her again and again.

By the time Kate took her job as a first-year associate with Marshall Denehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Mary Kate was a senior in high school with a driver’s license. She delivered Susie and Terri to sporting events and school activities.

Kate’s parents remained involved with the girls, as did Joe. He was pursuing a career at Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Though he holds a law degree from Temple University (and an MBA from St. Joseph’s University), he spent his career on the technology side of the business.

Mary Kate graduated from Mount Saint Joseph’s Academy and went to Northwestern University to study music. Though she longed to perform on Broadway, she started law school at Villanova. Her studies were interrupted when she earned a role in the Broadway Show “Candide.” It was the beginning of many roles, including performing on a national tour of Sunset Boulevard and numerous shows at the Arden Theatre Company and the Walnut Street Theatre.

By the time she received her two Barrymore nominations, Mary Kate was almost finished with Brooklyn Law School. She graduated in 2001, and though she had opportunities for more acting roles, she wanted a “normal life” where she could have a family and maintain a regular schedule. She chose law and now practices in the area of professional liability defense with Kane, Pugh, Knoell, Troy & Kramer LLP in Norristown.

Like Mary Kate, Susie’s path to the bar was not a direct one.

“Over my dead body was I going to be a lawyer,” she mistakenly predicted.

An English major at the University of Scranton, she spent her first year after college volunteering with AmeriCorps. Teaching English in inner city Baltimore was fulfilling, but she wanted more. Maybe medical school or a doctorate in English? Maybe, just maybe, law school.

A discussion at her parents’ dining room table helped make her decision.

“Dad made it easy for me,” Susie said with a grin, “He wasn’t about to pay for a Ph.D. in English.”

A few months later, she began law school at the University of Pennsylvania.

When it came time to take the bar exam, Mary Kate made her sure her little sister was ready. She sent her notes of encouragement and had a full dinner waiting for Susie in her hotel after the first of two grueling days of tests.

Susie realized, then, how much work it took to get to where she was.

“After my first week of work, I came home and kissed my parents,” she said. “I don’t know how they did it – worked this hard every single day!”

Unlike her sisters, Terri knew she wanted to be a lawyer from the time she was in first grade (that was when her mom started at Villanova). After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Boston College in 2002, Mary Kate and her father drove to Boston to bring Terri home.

Before they arrived, Terri got a call from her mother – the letter arrived home stating that Mary Kate had passed the bar. It was Terri’s birthday - she had just turned 21. She greeted her big sister with the news, holding a bottle of champagne and a huge grin of congratulations.

Following in Susie’s footsteps, Terri volunteered with AmeriCorps after she graduated from BC. Her work landed her in North Philadelphia at St. Malachy Parish, but that was just a stop on the way. Terri was headed straight to Temple University’s Beasley School of Law where she was a Law Faculty Scholar. When it was her time to take the bar exam, she looked to her sisters for direction.

Terri, who had been playing in a competitive basketball league, had a game the night in between the two-day bar exam.

 “My sisters told me that I need to clear my head and I should play the game,” she said.

 Though it seemed odd at first, Terri did play. She felt like she had the best game of her life. The next day, just like her sisters and mother, Terri passed the bar the first time around. She accepted a job at Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel LLP where she had clerked during law school and where her big sister Susie was already an accomplished associate as a member of the firm’s Labor and Employment Department.

“That first year, it was so great to have a sister to ask all my questions,” Terri said. “I never had to worry about sounding stupid.”

Although it is a simple illustration, it perfectly represents the dynamics between the family. They have always been there for each other.

During the day, there are regular phone calls or e-mails among the sisters, soliciting advice from each other: How do I file this type of motion? What is your experience with this judge? Do you think I’m taking the right approach here? Want to proof a brief?

“Having my mom, dad and sisters as resources has definitely upped my game as a lawyer,” Mary Kate said. “I learned the art of questioning from experiencing it first-hand growing up. If we came home late and offered a concocted explanation, we ended that conversation admitting the truth because of my parents’ highly effective interrogation skills.”

But out of the office, the shoptalk never shows up.

“Once the workday is over, it’s over,” Mary Kate said.

After 5 p.m. it is all about the kids. Among the three sisters, there are five kids under 8. Susie Valinis and her husband, Jay, have two sons, Joe, 7, and Owen, 5. They have best friends in their cousins, Liam, 5 and Paddy, 4, the children of Mary Kate and Brendan May. Terri Gillespie and her husband Bill added the only girl to the mix when Catherine Mary was born last year

Family is the center of their lives. Their time together, their discussions, and their focus are all about the kids. When Susie and Jay decided they wanted to start a family, Susie told her father, “Dad, it’s time for you to quit your job.”

Shortly before young Joe arrived in 2003, his Pop Pop retired to focus on his new career: raising his grandchildren.

Joe proudly proclaims that he has been the primary care provider during the first 18 months of his four grandsons’ lives. His only granddaughter has been under his care since Terri returned to work. Though the boys are in school full- time now, he still watches them on holidays and helps out on weekends.

The cousins play on the same T-ball teams and attend Norwood-Fontbonne Academy together. Their parents and grandparents share babysitting and carpooling responsibilities. On each other’s speed dial, they are quick to respond to a sister in need and understand that family is first no matter what.

When choosing employers, they carefully selected firms that are family focused and accommodating to their family commitments.

“We work for people who put family first,” says Mary Kate.

McGrath Sunday mornings start with 9 a.m. Mass at Our Mother of Consolation Church. Arriving from different locations – Kate and Joe from Laverock, Susie and Jay and Mary Kate and Brendan from Chestnut Hill, and Terri and Bill from Mt. Airy. They find the extended family in their regular pew and greet each other so enthusiastically that it seems as though it’s been months, not hours or days, since they had last seen one another.

Mass is followed by a family brunch every Sunday at Kate and Joe’s home in Laverock. The dining room is full and the energy level high. Talk is about Liam’s school art project, Catherine’s latest food choices and Joey’s line drive in yesterday’s baseball game.

There is no discussion of cases or briefs or trials or judges. They do take a moment to praise each other and glimmer with pride at the mention of their 2010 Pennsylvania Rising Stars recognition. Like everything else in their lives, it means more because they share the honor with their sisters.

They never imagined it then, on that first day of school so long ago, but now each of them have reached a point in their lives where legal careers are blossoming – but family is first.

For, mom Kate, it’s all she could have asked for.

“To both Joe and me, it is great to see them so happy in their lives with their families, so fulfilled in their careers and motivated to work so hard to do it,” she said.


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