Practicing toward perfection: Law practice a team effort for majority-female firm
Sylva attorney Kim Carpenter’s legal career started after law school, but the year she spent beforehand working with the Swain County Department of Social Services planted the seeds.
“I always had an interest in the law, but my main interest had been just to help people,” she said. “My mother had been a social worker, so I worked for a year out of college before law school for DSS in Swain and thought that I could serve people in a different way than that. That was my initial objective in going into law.”
Go into law she did, in 1996 graduating from the N.C. Central School of Law in Durham, joining the N.C. Bar and going to work for Sylva-based Melrose, Seago & Lay.
“You go to law school and you come out to practice law, and that’s truly what you do,” she said. “You learn many things as you go.”
Luckily for Carpenter, who had interned with Mark Melrose before graduating from law school, she had bosses who were willing to help her to develop as a young lawyer. Within two years of joining the practice, Carpenter had become a partner — the “Lay” in Melrose, Seago & Lay.
“Mark and Randy (Seago) were very giving people and they were very good to me, but I worked hard as well,” she said. “While they were litigators, I felt my best course there would be to develop new areas of practice such as real estate. I established a real estate practice within a litigation firm that grew successfully.”
So much so that when Carpenter saw her own interest in litigation develop — “I fell in love with the workers compensation part of law … I felt like I was truly helping people,” she said — she had to hire someone to take over the real estate side of things.
That someone was Aggie Guy, a Haywood County native who had earned her law degree from the Florida Coastal School of Law. Guy took the job and ran with it, earning a master’s of law in taxation from the University of Alabama and adding tax and estate administration to the practice.
“I have an affinity for older folks,” Guy explained. “When I was in high school I used to volunteer with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, and I kind of kept that involvement throughout college in different outlets. So when I started practicing law I was immediately drawn to the elderly and how I could help them.”
Carpenter, 48, and Guy, 37, still work together, but not at the firm where they met. Now they’re partners at Sylva-based Carpenter, Guy & Arnold. With two-thirds female ownership, it’s one of the few law firms in the area that’s mostly owned by women.
“I really like to think people, especially women being a minority in that field, would build each other up,” said Guy. “I think there’s more now than there was. We have more female attorneys now than we probably every have.”
Sometimes, said Guy, the fact that relatively few women practice law can create “an innate sense of competition” between those who do. She credits the fact that Carpenter never treated her that way with much of her success in the field, and her own desire to pay that leg up forward to other young attorneys.
“She was always willing to help me anytime I had a question. Stupid, stupid questions sometimes, but she took the time to really help me build a foundation, and I do hope that I have done the same for people as they’ve come along, because that was the example she set for me,” Guy said.
“I believe in helping others along the way, and I hope that I’ve done that with her and some other lawyers, just like I was helped along the way when I was young,” said Carpenter, whose community perspective extends beyond the law office. She is an elected member of the Swain County Board of Education and serves in a number of other service-oriented boards and volunteer capacities as well.
It’s a funny thing, said Carpenter, because some people expect lawyers to always be the abrasive, fist-banging, courtroom-shouting-match-having types they’ve seen on TV — and some women trying to succeed in male-dominated fields carry a perception that they’ve got to be all that and more to be taken seriously. It’s taken her a while to find her own path, but she’s settled on a strategy of being “firm but professional” that has served her well in her 22 years of law, and helped her gain the respect of her peers.
“Starting out I really felt like I had to prove myself more,” she admitted. “For the older lawyers that were typically males, they always had an — I don’t know how to word this — they felt like they had to tell you how to do it.”
Not her partners, she said, but other lawyers she encountered in the course of her job.
“There were obstacles in proving yourself as being a worthy opponent in some instances,” she said. “But my experience was once I was able to establish myself and my confidence grew, I was able to present myself and my client in a fashion that was worthy of their respect.”
Carpenter doesn’t see that male and female lawyers are fundamentally any different in the way that they practice. But individual differences in personality and worldview between different attorneys do have an impact, she said. People tend to choose attorneys whose beliefs and values are similar to theirs.
“There are some people who want a lawyer to bang their fist on the table and be the TV lawyer they see, and that’s not me,” said Carpenter. “I always tell people if that’s the kind of lawyer you want, that’s not me. I’ll be firm and professional in your case and represent you, but that’s not me.”
There are many ways that the reality of legal practice at Carpenter, Guy & Arnold is different from what some people envision through television-influenced stereotypes. It’s a less cutthroat and more balanced existence than what many might expect, Carpenter and Guy both said.
“It’s time management and it’s prioritizing,” said Carpenter. “Aggie (Guy) and I, both our families and our children come first, and I think once you know that’s the case you put everything else in line where it has to be to make sure you’re accomplishing that.”
They work hard, but they’re also sure to take time for family and community involvement — and to be willing to help when it’s a coworker’s turn to get away. Guy can stand in at court for Carpenter when she’s gone, and Carpenter can handle real estate cases for Guy. When the receptionist needs to go care for a sick child, they’ll all pitch in to answer the phone. In the mountains, said Guy, “you can’t pigeonhole yourself, or you’ll starve.”
“It’s just what you’ve got to get done,” she said. “I have left, gone and fed my kids, given them a bath, put them to bed and then come back. There have been weeks, months when I’ve had a lot of stuff that had to be turned in, and you just do it because it’s due.”
“It’s a good position to be able to come home to a place you grew up and care about,” she added.
“And the people you care about,” Carpenter agreed.
“It’s a good life,” said Guy.