Lawyer couples

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While some couples prefer to keep their work and personal lives separate, it’s not unheard of for lawyers to pair up. Four couples shared their stories with Indiana Lawyer.

Heather and Sebastian

J. Sebastian Smelko, associate legal counsel and gaming and public safety advisor to Gov. Mitch Daniels, met Heather James, an associate in Ice Miller’s municipal finance group, on their third day at Valparaiso University School of Law in August 2005.

After they graduated from law school in December 2007, they moved to Indianapolis. They were engaged June 5, 2009, and married June 26, 2010.

il-legalcouples04-15col J. Sebastian Smelko, associate legal counsel to Gov. Mitch Daniels, met Heather James, an associate at Ice Miller, on their third day of law school in August 2005. They were married in Rome, pictured above, June 26, 2010. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

While in law school, Smelko recalled, he and James would often be the only two doing legal research in the library on Friday nights. They still sometimes talk about work, but they are careful not to betray the confidences of their clients.

“We can communicate with each other in ways a lawyer and non-lawyer can’t,” Smelko said. “It’s not just, ‘I had a hard day,’ but ‘here’s why I had a hard day.’”

Because they’re both busy, they also make an effort to spend time together. The two walk to work together, and they will schedule dinners. “I send him calendar invites,” James said.

Craig and Diane

Craig Burke, a partner at Ice Miller, met Diane Cruz-Burke, assistant general counsel at Eli Lilly, on a bus to Chicago when they were undergraduate students at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Both graduated from business school in 1988. Cruz-Burke went to Harvard Law School immediately after graduating from IU, and Burke got a job in Boston. They were married in 1989, and Cruz-Burke finished law school in 1991.

Burke said he never intended to go to law school, but after seeing the experience his future wife was having, including the issues she debated in class, he changed his mind.

Because their first child was born during spring break of Cruz-Burke’s second year of law school, Burke considered schools closer to their home state of Indiana. Cruz-Burke passed the Indiana bar in 1991 and worked in Indianapolis, and Burke attended Indiana University Maurer School of Law and graduated in 1994.

il-legalcouples02-15col Craig Burke, a partner at Ice Miller, and Diane Cruz-Burke, assistant general counsel at Eli Lilly, met on a bus to Chicago when they were undergraduate students at Indiana University. They were married in 1989. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

While they rarely talk about work at home, they sometimes impart their legal-thinking skills on their children. For instance, they may ask their children, now ages 20, 14, and 10, to make their case about why they should be able to do something they want to do.

The couple’s 20-year-old, a business student at IU, is now considering law school, but Cruz-Burke said she has suggested to her daughter that she wait a few years after receiving her bachelor’s degree, something the Lilly lawyer sometimes wishes she had done so she could have either traveled or done something else between finishing her undergrad degree and starting law school.

Both said they work together to come up with “win-win” situations. When Cruz-Burke went to Austria for work, Burke agreed to go with her even though it had an impact on his work at the time.

“But I was the best ERISA lawyer in all of Vienna,” he quipped about his experience with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

Rebecca and James

Rebecca and James Balanoff are the only two attorneys at the firm they started in the 1980s, Balanoff & Balanoff, with offices in Munster, Merrillville, and Chicago.

They met at a New Year’s Eve party at Rebecca’s parents’ house when James was in law school at IU Maurer School of Law and Rebecca was a junior at the University of Chicago.

James graduated from law school in 1977, and followed Rebecca to Washington, D.C., where she attended George Washington University Law Center, and he worked for the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations. The two moved back to the Chicago area for Rebecca to finish her legal education at the University of Chicago.

When they first started working as a small firm, James worked as a part-time deputy prosecutor for a time and while their children, now ages 28, 25, and 19, were young, Rebecca took time away from her legal career or worked part time in their office balancing the roles of mother and lawyer.

Starting out, they’d take just about any case that walked in the door, but now most of their work is focused on Social Security disability.

The toughest thing has been planning vacations because there are only two of them, and when they do take a vacation, it’s usually together. If they’re visiting their kids, who now all live in Colorado, they’ll stagger it so one will get there a day or two earlier and the other will leave a day or two later.

The advent of electronic communication has also proven helpful for staying in touch with clients when they are on vacation, they said, even though it means they don’t always get a true break from the office.

Rob and Cathy

Rob Wiederstein and Cathy Nestrick have a different dynamic. Nestrick is an attorney at Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn in Evansville, and Wiederstein is a district judge in Henderson, Ky.

The two met at Hanover College and married a week before they began classes at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis. Nestrick said they consider their three years in law school “our honeymoon.”

“I definitely think that our marriage during law school was easier because we were both law students,” she said. “We saw many law students divorce while in school, and I often thought it was due to the stress of the program. It helped that we went through that stress together.”

Like other couples interviewed, Nestrick said even though both are lawyers, the two aren’t competitive with each other.

“While our markets do overlap, my base is in Indiana and his is in Kentucky,” she said. She added that she also wouldn’t appear before him in court, but if a client she represented was ever to appear in his court, he’d recuse himself.

Like the other couples, she also said because they’re both lawyers, they do talk about legal issues.

“It is helpful to have someone to use as a sounding board. As you know, the law is rarely black and white, and finding the ‘right gray’ can be tricky,” she said.

As for applying legal lessons with their children, now ages 11 and 13, “We have had our kids (and their friend in one instance) sign ‘contracts’ to reinforce the importance of promises. I also tend to demand ‘evidence’ that a particular event occurred as described,” she said.

All four couples said that their shared legal backgrounds have helped strengthen their marriages. They also agree that at the end of the day, it’s nice to come home to – or drive home or walk to work with – someone who can understand what they’re going through, whether they talk about it often or not.•


  • more lawyer couples
    Vijayalaxmi my wife, and me are one among the several lawyer couples in Kerala, South India.
  • nice story
    I liked this story. Lawyer families are a tradition in Indiana. The Tucker law firm in Paoli and the Steele law frim in Bedford asr just two family firms. And, there are a number of lawyers who are married to lawyers and whose children are now law school grads. Mary Lee Comer and Lee Comer are lovely example couple in Danville.

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  1. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  2. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  3. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  4. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  5. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well