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Law student-parents balance books and babies

October 28, 2013

Last May, Tim Surdyk had four final exams to study for and two papers due. That's enough to keep any law student up at night. But it was just a small fraction of his busy month.

He also had to factor in eight track meets, the SAT, an AP history exam, lifeguard training, three doctor appointments, one dentist appointment, two sleepovers, one piano recital, and the start of summer swim team. And, to top it all off, he had surgery on his left arm at the end of the month.

Surdyk, 49, is not only a law student but also raises four kids, aged 17, 15, 11, and 9. Since his wife passed away in 2009, he's been a solo parent. Somehow, he manages to keep track of everyone's schedules. "Logistics is everything," he said. "If it's not on the calendar, it doesn't exist."

Jake Kempton and TannerBalancing the demands of law school with the demands of raising a family can be challenging. That's why students Brianna Johnston-Hanks and Erin Lecocq, both 2Ls, founded Parents Attending Law School (PALS), a group that meets occasionally to share stories, ideas, and support.

The two moms met as first-year students in the part-time program, each one wondering if they were the only person crazy enough to attempt law school while caring for an infant. Roughly 13 percent of Seattle University School of Law's incoming 1Ls have children, on average, and it's not uncommon to see a tot or two around Sullivan Hall, or crossing the stage with mom or dad at graduation.

"I always tell my friends that my dream is to graduate with my toddler in one arm and my baby in the other," says Jake Kempton, who has a toddler son and a baby on the way in February. Kempton and Surdyk are both 3Ls in the full-time program.

But until graduation day, how do perpetually sleep-deprived parents stay awake for all ... that ... reading? "Coffee is really helpful," said Lecocq.

"I read after the kids go to bed, I read when dinner's in the oven," Surdyk said. "I read between classes during the day."

Erin Lecocq and MadelineLecocq, whose daughter Madeline is 18 months old, said she's also found it's best to compartmentalize her time. And keep her priorities straight. "I never watch TV. I'm not the one who cleans the house. All I do is play with her and study," she said. "When she's awake, I'm mom. The second she goes to sleep, I'm a law student."

Students with babies and toddlers said they relied on supportive spouses and family members who are willing to help out. For Surdyk, who has older children, the kids themselves pitch in. His 9-year-old daughter, Mary, is the one who keeps the shopping list up to date, while his 17-year-old, Kenny, is old enough to drive himself to practices, sports games, and other events. They all make their own lunches and do laundry.

Johnston-Hanks's husband takes care of her 20-month-old son, Xavier, while she studies late into the night on campus, and her mother-in-law helps during the day. Before she started law school, her husband had never handled bedtime on his own. Now he's more empowered as a dad.

"If I weren't at school, I'd be working, so I would still miss time with him," she said. "As long as he's with people who love him, I don't feel guilty about not being there. I'm at law school because if I'm going to have a job and be away from him, I want it to be something I love and feel passionate about."

Lecocq remembered one moment when she felt a pang of regret about not being with Madeline. "I was taking the summer Crim Law class, and my husband texted me that she rolled over for the first time," she said. "But I've been there for the other big milestones."

It's worth it, she said, to be a good role model for her daughter. "I want her to know that, 'Hey, my mom got her law degree and took care of me when I was a baby. And if she did that, then I can do anything,'" she said. "That keeps me motivated."

When Madeline was smaller, she could come to campus with Lecocq and sleep through meetings or classes. But now that she's a busy toddler, she's had to stay home.

Kempton's wife is a stay-at-home mom, which both solves his childcare needs and makes law school look easy. "I'm always exhausted when I take care of my son," he said. "I tell my wife, 'Your job is way harder than my job.'"

It's easy to imagine the ways in which parenting makes law school tougher — and vice versa — but it's less obvious how being a parent actually makes it easier.

Brianna Johnston-Hanks and Xavier"It gives me a different perspective on things we discuss in class. Having a kid makes you grow up," Johnston-Hanks said. "Also, I've gotten really good at time management. You learn to value the time you have. When I'm here, I'm extra focused."

Lecocq said Madeline is the secret to her success. "If I had gone to law school right out of college, I would have failed out," she said. "I would lose sight of why I was here. But she keeps me grounded. She keeps things in perspective. When I'm with her, I get a break."

Surdyk said he'd wanted to become a lawyer ever since he was 13, but ended up spending his career in information technology instead. "I'm going to quit my job and go to law school," was a frequent joke he had with his late wife. In 2009, he did quit his IT job, but it was so he could stay home and take care of her as she struggled through her last few months with colon cancer.

"She told me that was my time to go to law school, but I said it was just a joke. She told me, 'Go and find out. Go find out if it's really a joke," he said. "A year after she died, I took the LSAT, and the kids were totally behind it. They've been my greatest supporters. I couldn't do this without them."

— Claudine Benmar