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LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2016: Patricia L. McKinnon

Attorney at Law, Indianapolis; Notre Dame Law School, 1994

May 4, 2016

If someone were to look for a modern-day Atticus Finch, they need not look any further than Patricia McKinnon. Patty, a certified family law practitioner, truly cares about her clients, the legal profession, social justice and her community. She has led the Indiana State Bar Association’s “Talk to a Lawyer Today” program for nearly 15 years. Helping those who cannot afford an attorney is a mission for her. This year marks her second time serving as chair of the ISBA’s Solo/Small Firm Conference. She is a mentor to many, answering questions about family law or being a solo practitioner. Patty also seems to have the unique ability of matching people’s strengths with opportunities in the community.

mckinnon-15col.jpg (IL photo/Eric Learned)

Why did you establish the “Talk to a Lawyer Today” program?

Judge Paul Buchanan Jr. had the idea of creating the first “Ask a Lawyer” program, which was organized by Karen Turner, the president of the Indianapolis Bar Association, in 2000. I was the co-chair of the first program with Mike Brown. When I asked a reporter to do a story on the first IBA program, she said, “I’d be more interested in publicizing this if it was a statewide program.” This gave me the idea to approach the Indiana State Bar Association for a statewide program, which the ISBA has generously supported as “Talk to a Lawyer Today” since 2001-2002.

Why did you add a wellness component to the Solo/Small Firm Conference?

For most attorneys one of the most difficult tasks is trying to balance work/life demands. For an attorney in a small firm or solo practice, it is almost impossible as there is simply no one else to do the work but you. To help attorneys realize that you can balance both demands, we added an entire “fun track” of sessions to this year’s conference including meditation, bike-riding, and even an adult coloring session. 

What are some tips for achieving a work/life balance?

You have to use the same laser-like focus that got you through law school to consciously think about your own mental and physical well-being. Physical activity must be part of your weekly schedule. I started taking karate, through the Adamson’s schools, in my mid-40s. It’s humbling to be the worst student in class (and the oldest), but I noticed improvement in my driving skills, my mental concentration and my patience with others as a result.

What’s something about you not many people know?

I believe I was the first female law student at the University of Notre Dame Law School to give birth, while in law school, and still graduate in the same three years as everyone else. During my second year of law school, the dean met me in the hallway, and said, “The Secret Service wants you to know your diaper bag is free from bugs.” The Secret Service was inspecting the law school’s robing room, off the courtroom, prior to a visit by Marilyn Tucker Quayle, and became suspicious as to why a diaper bag would be in this area.

Why did you become a lawyer?

I am a third-career lawyer.  Like many others, who came late to the law, I never grew up wanting to be a lawyer.  In my late 20s, I realized that being a lawyer could combine a desire to help others with the power of the legal system to actually make a difference in the lives of others. 

What was the most memorable job you had prior to becoming an attorney?

Fresh out of college, I worked as a freelance writer and wrote a history of obstetrics for the local medical association in the Quad Cities. It was such a thrill to tell the story of older doctors who used to arrive at a patient’s home, driving a horse and buggy, to deliver a baby.

What excites you about family law?

It’s a different kind of relationship with a client when you are a family law attorney. I tell my clients that I’m like an oncologist, only instead of talking about the death of a person, I deal with the death of a relationship. Most family lawyers refuse to watch soap operas as there’s just too much drama at work.

What’s something you wish you could tell your younger self?

“You just have to stay the course, and not get distracted and compare yourself with others. If it’s easy, what story are you going to tell? Nobody wants to hear how easy it was. That doesn’t inspire anyone.” – Actress Taraji P. Henson. 

How has family law changed since you started?

It’s not so much that family law has changed but how much it has stayed the same. Most people still fall in love, get married, one person falls out of love, and the couple has to figure out what to do next. Now same-sex couples have the same legal options that opposite-sex couples have had for centuries. But, the end result is still the same — heartbreak, the division of assets and debts, and figuring out what is in the best interest of the parties’ offspring.

Why is it important to be active within legal and community organizations?

We are one of the last self-regulated professions in existence. This will quickly disappear unless we support our bar associations and fight to keep our profession independent. Most lawyers are natural leaders and love to use our hard-earned skills to help others through community organizations. It’s hard to find a nonprofit organization without at least one lawyer on the board.

What will the legal profession look like in 15 years?

I don’t think the need for legal advice from a human being will ever go away. While we talk about how much of the law can be digitized and offered by a computer, the bottom line is that we will always need another human to help us identify, and solve, our legal issues.

What do you like the most about being an attorney? What do you like least?

I enjoy being an attorney because I am a solo attorney. In truth, I would have been fired if I had worked for anyone but myself. Without family living in the area, I needed the flexibility of working for myself to handle the almost daily emergencies that arose from having small children, or from managing my elderly mother’s health care. On the flip side, being a solo offers no job security or benefits since you don’t get paid when you don’t work.

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