The Human Lawyer: Kelly Nutty

The Human Lawyer: Kelly Nutty

Kelly Nutty has a secret. And no, it’s a not a dirty little secret. For her, nobody puts baby, er community service, in the corner. But when you can’t keep the “baby” in the corner, the baby takes on the main stage. But what does that mean. What if baby’s intrusion on your main stage dictates a professional pivtot? Read about what that has meant for Kelly as she shares her story, in her words.

You’re Here, But How?

A secret life.

Let me explain: I grew up volunteering in the community. As a 5th grader, I volunteered to read to 2nd graders at my school. As a tween, my parents dropped a friend and I off at the humane society to volunteer. I loved getting involved in community projects. I was curious about how things worked, how dogs got adopted, how volunteers helped in schools, and everything in between. Curiosity hasn’t killed this cat . . . yet.

Fast forward to practicing law, my community streak didn’t end. As a young attorney, law firm life seemed to be about two things: billing hours and winning. Not bad things. But not enough for me. I secretly volunteered in my community. As a young associate, on Saturday mornings, before the inevitable endless weekend work, I stole away to the homeless shelter in my community. I spent a couple of hours anonymously, not as an attorney, but as a job coach. I helped people experiencing homelessness—men and women who were moms and dad, living at the shelter with their children. I’d help them create resumes, apply for jobs, practice for job interviews, and get clothes for the first day of their new jobs. I volunteered at a day-long job and resource fair for residents of multiple shelters. I still treasure the volunteer t-shirt.

Later in my career, I moved near a no-kill animal shelter. My husband and I would spend our Sunday mornings—call it the religion of community—walking dogs who were waiting for their forever homes. We gave them attention, cleaned kennels, and took them to adoption events. Every Sunday when we arrived at the shelter, the dogs we walked the weekend prior were usually adopted. What a great feeling!

Little did I know that my secret community life would turn into a second career. My legal career officially ended in 2011 when my husband got transferred for his job. We picked up our Metro Washington D.C. life and headed for Northeast Wisconsin, moving to Appleton, WI—30 miles west of Green Bay, Home of the Green Bay Packers. As my husband started his new role in his company, I moved us out of our corporate apartment, and into our new house.

I gave myself three months to get settled and find a job. To get to know my new town, I did what I do best: volunteered in the community. (A zebra doesn’t change her stripes . . . so they say.) I volunteered at a homeless shelter, again as a job coach, then to help construct a greenhouse for residents learn to grow and prepare veggies. I also volunteered at a no-kill pet rescue to walk dogs, clean cat and dog kennels, wash kennel linens, and mop floors. After a couple of months of volunteering, I needed to get to work, so I applied and interviewed for a job in a corporate legal department.

At the same time, the executive director of the homeless shelter I volunteered with wanted to interview me for their only open position—a young adult (ages 18–24) case manager. The shelter job interview wasn’t what I expected. I dressed down, or tried to dress down, one of my legal suits, and showed up to the interview in a cream blouse, black pants, and Stuart Weitzman heels. The director had a last-minute donation that was given, so part one of my interview took place in her old farm truck that smelled like hay and wet dog. Part one of the interview took place on the way to a furniture store that was donating a used couch. And part two was even more formal: you guessed it, we (the director and I) loaded the couch in the bed of the truck and drove back to the shelter. I was hooked. My secret life prepared me for THIS moment. My secret would be no longer. I called the recruiter and legal supervisor at the corporate opportunity to respectfully pull my name from consideration. I then accepted my new role as a young adult case manager at a transitional homeless shelter.

Initially, my husband worried that I would be bored. However, as it turns out, this decision was perfect for the journey I had been on throughout my career. I got excellent training in my new role, and soon thereafter, formed a task force to create a new program for youth aging out of foster care and other juvenile programs. No one dreams to become homeless. We had been serving young adults as best we could, but they had rooms and interacted mostly with guys who were chronically homeless. The new young adult program transferred the young adults at the shelter to another building we owned, where we created supportive, mentoring programming for them. I went on to lead that program.

As a woman who didn’t have children by choice, I was now a “mom” to 8 young adult men living in crisis. I was the opposite of bored. The fundraising staff member left the organization, and I moved into that position until a new staff member could be hired. I wrote grant applications and grant reports; and I talked to donors about why our mission mattered. Then, I told my director that I wanted to be a fundraiser because, in my view, a nonprofit fundraiser doesn’t just ask people for money, she tells stories, advocates, designs programs, creates strategy, and develops budgets. A lot like an attorney, but with less pounding on the table.

Our shelter had started a job training program to help people experiencing homelessness break the cycle of homelessness. The program broke off from the organization and was created as a new nonprofit. I went over to that new nonprofit, focused on fundraising, program design, and innovation. We collaborated with local treatment courts that worked with veterans, people struggling with mental illness, and alcohol and drug addiction. While I wasn’t practicing law, I was still involved with the law. In my free time, I was an intake volunteer for the local legal clinic. This time, my volunteer work wasn’t a secret.  

I’m now at a larger nonprofit with deep roots and history in Northeast Wisconsin. In my current role, I am the director of development and HIPAA compliance officer for a mental health and foster care nonprofit. I get to be a part of a mission that heals mind and spirit. While I’m no longer practicing law, the skills and experiences in law school and legal practice inform my work. I write, tell stories, advocate, persuade, inspire, and work hard. All virtues I saw of any successful attorney I worked for and within private practice.

Nonprofit work, like private practice work, never ends. For nonprofit staff members, burnout rates are high. Often, it feels like we take one step forward and two steps backward. We walk into work every day to find an inbox full of questions and requests; a week full of meetings; issues and recurring questions of sustainability; and ongoing staff turnover. Externally, we constantly are pushed by funders and board members to innovate, lead, and collaborate. For many, these pressures often lead to—you guessed it—misery, the exact opposite emotion of the feeling many of us experience in our first years of nonprofit work.

I deal with these struggles every day, every week. So, how can I possibly find joy in my work? Because, for me, joy starts with gratitude. I'm so grateful that I have the skills, desire, and strength to make my community better. As a fundraiser, I connect people who want to make an impact in their community with the opportunity to give to their neighbors who need help. I am seriously lucky. I love what I do. Gratitude and joy give me love for my work.

Every summer, I pay to keep my non-active status for my two bars because I worked hard for those bars. I’m proud of them. But, I’m also proud of trading in my Stuart Weitzman’s for Chucks. I’m biased, but Chucks have more swag—or at least they’re my swag.

Your Greatest Inspiration: Who?

I loved law school. I was the student in the front row of most classes. Law school professors, particularly my property, labor and government contract law professors, showed me how the law is logical, yet creative; full of tradition, yet innovative; and tough, yet full of empathy. I would stay after class and talk to some of my professors for an hour or more. I worked at a law firm as a secretary and then a paralegal, during law school. Looking back, I really enjoyed putting my learning into practice immediately and I suppose that explains my “dive-right-in” nonprofit persona.

After law school, I received a federal clerkship. My judge was such a great mentor. He loved the law and helped me love it more. In law firm life, I had a mentor who took me under his wing. He was tough, but fair, empathetic, caring, and kind. I think about him to this day. He has since passed away, but I think he would be proud of my journey.

In 2003, I read Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, by Derrick Bell. Professor Bell was a lawyer, professor, and civil rights activist. The book changed my life. I corresponded with Professor Bell. His book and words focused on relational intentionality and never giving up one’s personal true north. I reference Ethical Ambition on a regular basis. It inspires me and provides grace.

You’re Fulfilled: How or By What?

This post may say it best.

But, if time and experience are our greatest teachers, then I suppose I remain fulfilled by choosing to be fulfilled. Don’t worry, it’s not as circular as it sounds. My professional “happy place” is a place where I create a lot of my work. I believe everything we do is “good.” But, I also believe that we decide whether we can make “good,” “great.” That’s my fulfillment journey: to create new ways to engage the community; tell stories; and help inspire program leaders to innovate and start new programs.

If I were labeled, I suppose I would be the “recovering attorney.” In that spirit, I give myself more time outside of the office. I make a point to learn one new thing every year. Some of those “new things” continue year-to-year; others are learn-it-and-be-done endeavors. A couple years ago, I taught myself to knit (still do that one). I teach myself new stitches, and problem-solve when things do wrong. I could watch a video on YouTube to teach me, but I prefer to break it down and figure it out myself. I’ve also learned Tai Chi and Qigong. I started a book club 8 years ago (still going strong). And, most recently, I learned to play the viola in a 6-week crash course. Armed with my newly discovered musical talent, I performed at a charity concert with other new viola players to raise money for children’s symphony programs. We were bad, and good, and everything in between. It was the first time since law school that I felt being really new at a skill. I had to relearn to read music; figure out how to hold and tune a viola; and play a few songs on a performing arts stage in front of an audience.

My passions—besides by husband and four rescue pets (2 dogs, Dixie Lou and Dagny Taggart, and 2 cats, Spanky and Annie)—are literature, especially Russian Literature, and concerts. I’m more than a little obsessed with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. And, I make it a point to travel to multiple concerts every year. My favorites so far: Johnny Cash early 90s at Ford’s Theater (with June Carter and Rosanne); Cake (twice); Lenny Kravitz (three times); Doc Watson; Prince (when he was a symbol); Violent Femmes; and The Cult. Oh, how could I forget? My favorite artist is Salvador Dali. I fell in love with his work just after his death. I had just moved from Daytona Beach, FL (my hometown) to D.C. (having put everything I owned in my car on the Amtrak autotrain). Soon after arriving, I went to the Hirshhorn Museum, where I saw a Dali exhibit and fell in love with the risks that Dali took, his weirdness, and that he had a muse. I’m now about halfway through my travels to see every Dali museum/permanent exhibit in the world. I own an original Dali.

You’ll Be Remembered: How?

As an attorney, I said out loud on occasion that I didn’t want my tombstone only to say that I billed 2300 hours a year. I’m happy to say that it will read: Joyful – Tenacious – Didn’t Bill 2300 Hours A Year. At my eulogy, I hope my friends stream my favorite music and drink good bourbon. Perhaps they can have my life celebration at an animal shelter and walk dogs while they talk about me.

You’ll Change the Practice of Law in this Meaningful Way

In my firm experience, I learned that, on average, most of firm leadership didn’t want to hear about a young associate’s robust personal life, or in my case the “secret life.” They wanted to walk by your office on weekends and see you excited to be billing clients; ready for “the kill.” Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. But, for the most part, I assumed partners didn’t want to know about the time their associates were engaging in “frivolous personal pursuits” instead of billing. However, there were key pieces of lawyering that I really enjoyed:

  • The creative process. Litigation cases I worked on were complex and lengthy. I enjoyed diving into case law and documents to create and pursue cases for clients. I know it was stressful to be a litigation client, and I’m grateful for their trust.

  • Litigation teams. Getting to know my work colleagues on a more personal level by spending time working alongside them was really rewarding. I had the privilege to get to know their lives outside of law. I’m still friends with some to this day.

  • Thinking time. Big cases afford countless hours of legal research and document review, deposition prep, brief writing, and other solo pursuits. As much as I enjoyed teamwork, I equally relished solo time: thinking, planning, and creating.

I only wish the law firms I worked for knew how to use the uniqueness of every attorney to make the practice of law more emotionally rich and satisfying for both the attorneys and the firms. I think there’s a better way out there for law firms to elevate the unique personal brands of their individual attorneys. It’s developing organizational structures that place greater value on the uniqueness of each attorney and the power of original, creative thinking that likely would improve a lawyer’s actualization journey in private practice.

What Makes You YOUnique?

Pretty sure, I’m weird, unintentionally. I’m a nerd, an introvert, I still listen to post punk music from the 70s-80s, and collect vinyl (original pressings only). Although I never saw them in concert, one of my favorite bands is The Beastie Boys. My walk-on song is Sabotage.

My mind is always going, thinking, and creating. I’m so proud that I practiced law, and I’m so proud that I left the practice of law. I absolutely love every day of my life.

You can find Kelly here, here, or here. She has a story to share and so do you. You’d enjoy connecting.

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