|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JANUARY 2012|
As the first legal aid attorney to be elected president of the Oregon State Bar Board of Governors, it seems Mitzi Naucler has enough on her plate to be excused from keeping New Year’s resolutions. But with 2012 still in its infancy, Naucler, regional director of the Albany office of Legal Aid Services of Oregon and newly elected OSB president, is well on her way to achieving one of her personal goals for the new year.
Each January 1, Naucler challenges herself to “do one thing I’ve never done, in a place I’ve never been, with people I’ve never met.”
Her term as a new bar president will undoubtedly enable her to accomplish her goal as she travels the state, meeting many of the bar’s 14,000 members. The resolution itself reveals a lot about Naucler and the approach she’ll bring to leading the bar.
“Mitzi has a fierce intelligence that’s combined with grace, elegance and curiosity about everything,” summarizes friend and colleague Yvonne Tamayo, professor of law at Willamette University College of Law.
“Everything” means just that. Naucler’s interests range from the law, Native American culture, art, reading, domestic violence issues, social movements and people, to cooking, wine, gardening, knitting and much, much more.
Fay Stetz-Waters, an Oregon administrative law judge who worked with Naucler at Legal Aid and is now a good friend, admires her former supervisor’s three-pronged New Year’s resolution.
“It took me awhile to understand the enormity of what it takes” to achieve it, Stetz-Waters says. “To succeed, you have to be comfortable with who you are, confident in new situations, comfortable with meeting new people, and willing to continually take stock of yourself. Mitzi’s resolution made me think, ‘Here’s a courageous, energetic, interesting person.’ ”
Background Reflects Versatility, Curiosity
Naucler’s resume reflects the qualities her friends describe. Her professional background includes nearly 25 years of legal experience in private practice and legal aid; service on more than seven nonprofit and government advisory boards; admission to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Minnesota and Oregon state bars; participation on the OSB Client Security Fund; previous Oregon BOG experience; and three awards for pro bono service. She also worked as a part-time video camera operator while she was in private practice.
“I’m a person who’s just curious, that’s all,” says Naucler. “My biggest bugaboo is that I get bored. I’m always trying something new.”
Naucler is renowned for bringing new people and new things together. Each summer she and her husband of more than 30 years, John Hartman, invite people from around the state to watch the launch of the Albany Hot Air Balloon Festival from a breakfast party in their backyard. The 5:30 a.m. gala is complete with champagne and a gourmet spread, all prepared by Naucler. The hot air balloons float right over their house. Once a month, they try to host a party, always with a theme. Naucler does the cooking, catering and wine selection herself.
Stetz-Waters recalls that during lunch breaks at Legal Aid, Naucler would explore Albany on foot, visiting new shops and introducing herself to business owners. She always shared what she learned with her colleagues back at the office. She reads three or four books a week, then incorporates what she’s read into advice for her friends. “And she’s always right!” exclaims Stetz-Waters. “She’s like a genie in a bottle. She should have an advice column: ‘Ask Mitzi.’”
Naucler is very modest about her talents. When asked what she does to relax between the demands of legal aid work and her new role as bar president, she says nothing about the accomplishments described by others. She responds simply, “I knit. And I cook a lot.” Meanwhile her friends expound on her talents, explaining that cooking means preparing elaborate homemade meals, often whipped up at a moment’s notice, and knitting includes custom-fit sweaters and socks, full of intricate patterns that Naucler knows by memory.
She also enjoys a self-effacing sense of humor. Lest she sound too noble discussing her three-pronged New Year’s resolution, Naucler prefaces it with one of her other annual resolutions: She tries not to gossip. “It’s not a success. It lasts maybe 24 hours,” she grins.
Tamayo, a native of Cuba, met Naucler at a lunch for the Oregon Supreme Court. They formed what Tamayo considers a very interesting and unlikely friendship: a woman from Havana, Cuba and a woman from a small town in Minnesota. Over the years, Naucler introduced Tamayo to surprising treasures around the Salem area: a couple who live in a castle, complete with a moat, in nearby Stayton; the Gathering Together Farm in Philomath that sells organic produce; and the Carol Smith card gallery tucked away in a Salem alley at the top of some creaky stairs with no sign on the door.
“I’m attracted to people who teach me something new every day or make me laugh,” Tamayo says. “Mitzi does both.”
Nontraditional Path Leads to Law School
Naucler developed her taste for new experiences while growing up in International Falls, Minn., a small town, “literally at the end of the road,” on the Canadian border. She was the oldest of four children — three girls and a boy. Her maternal grandmother moved to California, so on occasion Naucler’s family traveled to Pasadena. “I saw the Rose Parade three times as a kid,” she boasts. “I was pretty unusual because in northern Minnesota, no one went further than 50 miles from town.”
Naucler graduated from Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minn., (now Minnesota State University Moorhead), but her eight-year matriculation was punctuated with breaks for full-time work and attendance at the University of Oregon. After her freshman year at Moorhead in 1971, she “read in Rolling Stone that Eugene was the hippest place in America,” she recalls. She moved to Cascade Locks to live with an aunt and uncle for a year while she established Oregon residency and worked at Charburger. She attended U of O part time and worked full time for two years. In 1975 she moved to Missouri where she ended up working as a pastry chef.
Finally she called her parents in Minnesota and told them that if they would pick her up, she would go back to Moorhead State and graduate. They drove all Thanksgiving weekend to get her. She called Moorhead and told them “I have no money, no room and no schedule. They said ‘No problem.’ ” She earned her B.A. in 1979, graduating cum laude.
Her decision to go to law school was almost by chance. Naucler was interested in corrections and envisioned learning about building prisons. She initially applied to and was accepted for graduate school in urban planning at Portland State University. At the last minute, however, she also applied to and was accepted at Willamette University College of Law in Salem. She withdrew from PSU.
Did she know what lawyers do? “No,” she admits and laughs. “My motto is live without fear. I don’t always necessarily have a plan.”
Naucler is flexible, a trait she credits for her personal happiness and professional success. “I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a varied and interesting career. It’s by pure luck sometimes. Sometimes it’s by being in the right place at the right time and being willing to say yes.”
That explains how she came to work part time as a video camera operator while she was in private practice in Salem. Hartman, her husband, worked for Alexander Art Supplies, producing instructional art videos for public television. One weekend he was short a camera operator.
“Do you think I could do it?” Naucler offered, knowing nothing about operating the large cameras. Hartman took her up on the offer. “There was a new boss in the studio and he didn’t know who I was,” Naucler remembers. “After watching me, he asks, ‘Who’s that on Camera 1? You need to fire her!’ ” She laughs. Apparently she mastered the job; Naucler kept the post for four years, filming the programs during marathon weekend shoots.
Midwestern Upbringing Shapes Sense
Naucler admits to a strong work ethic and sense of obligation, instilled, she says, through her Midwestern upbringing and Scandinavian heritage. Her paternal grandfather was from a Swedish family of doctors, lawyers and engineers, providing genetics that are evident in Naucler’s keen intelligence, deep blue eyes and striking white hair. Although her paternal grandfather was well educated, neither of her parents attended college. No one really talked about going to college while she was growing up, she says. “But there was an expectation of how you live in the community and that you have responsibilities.”
It’s a personal expectation of service she’s met throughout her career. Three times in the 1990s, the Marion County Bar Association recognized Naucler’s pro bono service with the Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year or Pro Bono Attorney of the Year awards. Depenbrock, Gangle & Naucler, her firm while she was in private practice in Salem from 1985 to 1992, was recognized in 1990; Naucler herself was honored in 1995 while she served as instructor and supervising attorney for Willamette University’s Clinical Law Program; and Willamette’s Clinical Law Program was recognized in 1997.
“It’s partly my background and belief that we owe public service. Any advantage you have in life, you have by luck; not because you deserve it,” she says.
Time is an Issue; Not an Obstacle
Naucler’s philosophy has shaped her career. Her first job out of law school was serving as director of Inmate Legal Services in Salem. In every job since, she’s continued to work with the disadvantaged, either through pro bono legal work, domestic violence services or legal aid, while also serving on boards and committees.
Time is an issue but not an obstacle to her involvement. She discussed her interest in bar leadership at great length with her boss and the board at Legal Aid before she ran for bar president. They all agreed her involvement was important, but that it couldn’t interfere with her Legal Aid work. “Basically, for two years I get no vacation,” she summarizes. “I use the vacation time to do bar things and if I can’t get it done, I work extra.”
It’s a trade-off she’s willing to make. At Legal Aid, she enjoys her clients, her co-workers, the work and the sense of satisfaction. “I like helping clients get going in the right direction and giving them some decision-making skills,” she explains. “I have particular empathy for people who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own.”
Naucler recalls a challenging Legal Aid client who had a particular impact on her. The client was in her early 20s, a married, unemployed mother of two young children, who was seeking help with a domestic violence issue. “She married up; she had been homeless and was raised by a mentally ill mother,” Naucler says.
The client was also very bright, motivated and outspoken. At one point, when Naucler gave her advice she didn’t like, the client stormed out of Naucler’s Legal Aid office, stomping down the hall. She stopped short, turned around and stomped back into Naucler’s office. “Well if you’re not gonna help me, what is it that you do?” she demanded. “Good question,” Naucler thought.
Naucler was able to help the young woman get a restraining order against her husband and she eventually got a divorce. The last time Naucler met with her, the former client had found a place to live, put herself through nursing school, and made ends meet by sewing all her own nursing uniforms and eating brownbag lunches. Her mentally ill mother lived in her garage.
“It was very impressive,” Naucler recalls. “I like working with people like that, who in the face of everything, rise up and overcome extraordinary odds. People with power — and by that I mean anyone who has ability and is upright — should help them.”
Stetz-Waters witnessed Naucler’s commitment to service while working with her at the Albany Legal Aid office. If program limitations kept Naucler from addressing the whole problem for a client, she looked for outside attorneys to handle remaining issues on a pro bono basis. “She really personified ‘doing your best,’” Stetz-Waters says.
Naucler served as a mentor to her, both professionally and personally. “I learned as much about life as I did about the law from Mitzi,” she says.
Stetz-Waters credits Naucler with an instinctive ability to connect with people. She remembers feeling impatient with Legal Aid clients who had trouble making decisions even though she thought the answers were obvious. “Mitzi was willing to tend to people and recognized what they needed,” she says. “She understands that [all] people don’t process information the same way.”
“You have to give your best, not your least.”
Naucler’s patience stems in part from recognition that the small things in a matter are sometimes the big things in a client’s eyes. She recalls a difficult pro bono case she handled while in private practice for the mother of a very poor family with young children. She didn’t get what she considered a winning outcome and always remembered it regretfully as a case she lost.
Several years later, Naucler’s law partner participated in career day at the local middle school. One of the students told her that she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. “Why?” she asked. “Because of my mother’s lawyer. Her name was Mitzi,” the girl replied. Inspiring the young girl to even dream of attending college and becoming a lawyer was extremely rewarding to Naucler.
“It’s the things we don’t intend that will make the hugest difference,” she says. “We have this kind of opportunity with everyone we come in contact with.”
As an instructor and supervising attorney for Willamette’s Clinical Law Program from 1992 to 2000, Naucler tried to instill the same sense of opportunity and moral duty in her students. “The only justice people get is the justice you give them, whether it’s your best advice or your best service,” she’d tell her class. “It’s important you deliver that.”
Giving the best of one’s self is a topic the easy-going Naucler is passionate about. “It’s not charity if you take credit for it and it’s not your best. You have to give your best, not your least. If it’s actual sacrifice, it’s not giving what’s left over at the end of the day.”
Not participating in public service is not an option in her world. She likens it to the Midwestern social obligation of attending a neighbor’s funeral. “It’s what you owe as being part of the community; it’s showing up at what matters. It’s understanding that it’s not about you,” she says emphatically.
Skills and Code of Conduct Form
Naucler truly values being part of the legal community, something she learned about herself when she and her husband moved to Duluth, Minn., in 2000 to care for their ailing parents. For five years she served as the administrator of Minnesota Program Development, a nonprofit that contracted to provide technical assistance to grantees of the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women.
She was surprised to discover how much she missed working with lawyers and the bond they share through the professional code of conduct. “There are certain rules that are immutable. Lawyers are more accepting that there are certain rules we have to follow. It was hard to work with people who didn’t understand that.”
She also missed lawyers’ intelligence and decision-making skills. “When faced with problems or challenges, lawyers have a unique ability to sort through options to make decisions,” she says.” That’s what we can help people with. That’s what we’re trained to do.”
It’s training that Naucler and the Board of Governors will put to good use as they develop and implement their plans for the Oregon State Bar in the coming year.
One of Naucler’s goals is to enhance the Oregon State Bar’s relevance for members and the public by learning what services and programs are most valued and conveying that information to others. “As the bar, we have to do a better job of communicating the value of lawyers to the public and the value of the bar to lawyers,” she says.
Naucler believes one of the greatest challenges the bar faces is that its membership is becoming demographically more diverse at the same time members are searching for relevance in their professional and organizational relationships. She cites the vibrancy of the state bar’s own New Lawyers Division and the success of special interest bar groups like Oregon Women Lawyers and the Oregon Gay and Lesbian Law Association. The state bar needs to identify its strengths in order to compete for relevance.
Also on her mind is addressing the issue of unemployed and underemployed lawyers, and meeting the legal needs of military veterans and residents of rural areas. She anticipates that the greatest legislative issue facing the bar during the next session will be funding for the courts and legal aid.
“I don’t think people, lawyers, understand how important the funding issues are. There are things you have to go to court for because there are no alternatives. We’re closer to the bone than people think,” she says.
Learning Will be Part of the Process
To prepare for tackling these issues, Naucler invited a facilitator to the BOG’s planning retreat in November to help the group build a framework for learning member and public perceptions, evaluating bar programs and identifying potential changes. Naucler praises the bar staff and its fiscal management; she doesn’t envision a host of new initiatives. “There’s nothing that needs to be fixed. There’s certainly room to improve and rearrange priorities,” she says.
Stetz-Waters believes Naucler’s program leadership skills will be an asset in her role as bar president. “She’s one of those people who can see what’s useful, what’s wasteful and what’s viable,” Stetz-Waters says.
Tamayo agrees. “She sees things as they are. She doesn’t sugar-coat them. She tries to find good in the circumstances, but doesn’t hesitate to see the bad and address it.”
While Naucler knows what to ask and whom to invite to the table for the discussion, “she also knows when the conversation is over,” says Stetz-Waters. And then Naucler can be a taskmaster. Despite her sense of humor and approachable manner, “You don’t underestimate her,” Stetz-Waters good-naturedly warns.
Naucler feels the greatest asset she brings to bar leadership is her varied background. She’s experienced in many of the same practice areas as members of the bar and understands the pressure lawyers feel to provide pro bono service along with the need to make a living.
She is looking forward to her year as bar president. It’s an opportunity to be involved with the bar in a new way, but also a chance to contribute to her professional community. “We have hard jobs and we owe it to each other to help in any way we can. We owe it to each other to have a robust professional life,” Naucler says.
That includes participating in bar programs and providing legal services to the public. “If it matters to us, we have to do it. Democracy depends on it.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen McGlone is a freelance writer and legal marketing consultant. She can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2011 Karen McGlone