We recently talked to former Stroock lawyer Beth Norton about her current career and the nontraditional route she took to get to where she is today. First, she was a teacher and then an educational consultant before she became a practicing lawyer. Always up for a challenge, Beth earned her J.D. simultaneously with doing her coursework toward her Ph.D. in education policy.
Starting her legal career at Stroock as an associate, Beth worked for another firm for a couple of years before rejoining Stroock as an associate and later becoming special counsel. Now Beth is general counsel at the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Beth talked to us about her career path, her role at UFT, the challenges she faced, especially during the COVID-19 crisis, and what she loves about her job. She also talked about what she appreciates about working with Stroock as UFT’s outside counsel.
Q: You took a really nontraditional route to get where you are today. Did you always want to combine education and law?
BN: It kind of all happened organically. It wasn’t my plan when I started out to end up where I am, but the steps along the way all kind of make sense. I was a music teacher in a school that had a significant population of students with disabilities. I joined a project that took a team-based approach to problem solving and planning to minimize the focus on identifying disabilities and instead focus on addressing the students’ needs. It was a great project and a great system, so I started consulting with the group I did the project with to bring the project to other schools. That grew into doing a lot of other work with schools. This was back in the 1990s and there was a lot of work with the Office for Civil Rights under the Department of Education. My work with the consulting group evolved into assisting districts in creating and entering into resolution agreements with the Office for Civil Rights, primarily to minimize over-identification of Black boys for special education.
Q: Tell me what made you decide to become a lawyer?
BN: I worked with a lot of lawyers from the Office for Civil Rights. I felt I’m just as smart as they are and thought why shouldn’t I be doing what they’re doing, so that’s when I decided to go to law school. I actually completed my law degree and all of my coursework for my Ph.D. in education policy at the same time because I knew I wanted to stay in education. In fact, when I went to law school, I didn’t have a plan to be a lawyer. I just thought it would be an interesting educational pursuit. When faced with the need to have practical lawyering experience, as well as the need to pay off my student loans, I made the decision upon graduation to enter private practice. It was my intention, however, to eventually work in education policy.
I spent my 2L summer at Stroock as a summer associate and I joined the firm after graduation. It took another 10 years to complete my dissertation and finish my Ph.D. as I was working as a full-time associate. I think I appealed to Stroock partially due to my education background because of the firm’s work with the UFT.
So although it seems unconventional and untraditional, there’s a method to the madness. As crazy as it’s been, I love what I’m doing right now.
Q. So, becoming a lawyer was a way to get to where you wanted to be in a sense.
BN: Yes, it was. At Stroock, I focused primarily on employment and labor litigation and the UFT was my main client.
Q: You were at Stroock twice over the course of your career. Tell me about your time at Stroock and what brought you back to the firm.
BN: I lived in Boston and live there now. When I came to Stroock after law school, it was the first, and only time I lived outside of Massachusetts. I loved working at the firm. I loved the people there, the energy of the place, and the collegial and cooperative environment. I enjoyed all of that. However, my husband didn’t have a lot of interest in moving to New York so, for family reasons, I moved back to Boston and took a job as a labor and employment associate where I got some great experience. I did hundreds of depositions for a class action lawsuit and lots of trial prep work, but I was not happy. The culture was very hierarchical with a very top-down workload. I’d go into work, work all day without really speaking to anyone, and then leave. That wasn’t the kind of environment I enjoyed.
As I started to look for other work, I reached out to Alan Klinger and Howard Lavin with whom I’d stayed in touch and asked if they’d be willing to give me a recommendation. They said that before I take another job, they would like to see if there was a way to figure out how I could return to Stroock. We worked out an arrangement where I was in New York City part time and in Boston part time. That was in January 2010. I was happy to be back at Stroock, both to have the opportunity to work with people I considered friends and to do the type of work I enjoyed.
Q: How did you end up at UFT?
BN: I wasn’t looking to leave Stroock, but then the opportunity came up to go work for the UFT and I took it. It was the right time to make the move.
Q. What does your role at the UFT entail?
BN: As general counsel, I am basically responsible for anything and everything legal or tangentially legal. My job covers both work with the union on union-related issues and advising the UFT as a business. I have responsibility vis-à-vis the union’s members, including formal and informal negotiations and ensuring that members’ rights are upheld. There is also the work I do for the UFT as a very large business entity. This involves advising the president and officers on policies and legal implications of policies, employment issues, contracts with vendors, grant contracts and a host of other issues.
Q. Looking back on your education, your legal experience and their interplay, what proved especially helpful in preparing you for your current role?
BN: Personality management and time management are two of the big things. As a music teacher, I would see 800 students over the course of a week. So definitely the ability to manage personalities and bodies was a skill that really came into play in my current role. Being able to adapt, working with different learning styles, and dealing with parents, the principal and the children, all with different interests and perspectives, proved to be helpful skills. As for my legal experience, it’s the work ethic that has transferred the most. Being able to manage the work and not get too stressed but also taking the downtime when it comes and being able to enjoy it are both skills that are important to survive in this business.
Q. What do you like best about your UFT job?
BN: I feel that my job really makes a difference now. There’s a direct impact. Take the pandemic as a great example. Due in no small part to the threat of legal action, we were able to get the schools closed in March when Mayor de Blasio was not interested in closing them. My work was integral there. We had to figure out the best working conditions for the teachers while they were working remotely. That was a huge hurdle and had direct impact on our members’ lives. Then there was getting the schools reopened. I would say that there were maybe three times we were on the verge of taking legal action. The papers were already drafted. It was that threatened pressure of legal action and the fact that we were taking health and safety conditions very seriously for members, students and families that really made a difference. It made a change in the plan and directly impacted our members. That’s what I like most about my job right now.
Q. What do you find the most challenging from a business perspective? How about from a legal perspective? I imagine it has been COVID on both fronts.
BN: Absolutely, 100%! Living and working through COVID-19 has definitely been the most challenging thing I’ve had to deal with over the course of my entire career. There are so many moving parts. You hear a lot of complaining whether the schools are open or closed. What’s really not understood is what it takes even to get where we’re at now. The number of situations and actions that just one decision impacts is huge, from getting on the bus, to getting to school, to bathroom breaks and whether there is enough soap, to what happens when the kids are eating lunch in the classrooms and are not wearing masks. Every little detail has to be thought through and planned.
Q. What can outside counsel do to make your job easier?
BN: I still use Stroock as our outside counsel and the firm’s lawyers are phenomenal. They’ve been working with the UFT for a very long time and fully understand the challenges we face. They have incredible patience and understanding when it comes to how we work, and that’s huge. Stroock’s lawyers are also very good at translating what they need in terms that are readily understood on the client side. I give them a ton of information and they excel at digesting, processing and distilling that information. Then they ask for what they need and clearly and simply explain what should be done.
One thing I really wasn’t prepared for was that my focus is not just on the big issues like litigation. It’s also the 500 daily issues and small challenges that come along and then balancing all of that. There was definitely a learning curve and being able to rely on outside counsel to help frame a litigation, for example, has been crucial. Working with a team I know is so very helpful.