Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2010
Profiles in the Law
Life Lessons:
Lana Traynor Rides High After Surmounting Painful Obstacles
By Melody Finnemore

Lana Traynor

Little in life has come easily for Lana Traynor. Rather than indulging in self pity or keeping secret the horrors she has faced, however, the Portland sole practitioner hopes her experiences will provide some perspective for others.

“People make assumptions about lawyers in general, that we come from a certain background or that we make a lot of money and don’t understand how the real population lives,” she says. “I got my mother’s blessing to share these things because I want people to know those assumptions aren’t always true.”

Born in Yakima, Wash., Traynor and her two brothers — one older and one younger — grew up with a father who was verbally and physically abusive, particularly toward their mother.

The family moved to Wapato, Wash., where their father worked on a farm and the kids were required to pitch in as soon as they were able. Traynor had learned to drive a tractor by the time she was 7.

One day, when Traynor was allowed to sleep in, her brothers kept jumping on her bed and pestering her to come drive the tractor. While everyone in the family was at work, an explosion caused by a defective gas water heater tank burned their mobile home to the ground. In an instant, the little they had became nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

“Basically there was nothing left but rubble and people were still trying to loot, if you can believe that,” Traynor says. “My mom made my brothers and I go to school the next day, and I was so angry because you can’t get the smell of house smoke out of your hair or clothes easily and we got made fun of by other kids. My mom literally marched us into school, explained what had happened and that was that.”

Traynor’s aunt took her to Goodwill to pick out an extra set of clothes for each family member. For several months, the family lived in a camper near the rubble and used a water hose to bathe and wash their clothes.

They eventually moved into another home but were evicted because they couldn’t pay the rent, even with their mother working three jobs and their father working two jobs.

“There were days that we didn’t have food, and holidays were rarely a happy experience for us,” Traynor says. “I remember there was one Christmas tree lot that gave us a free tree on Christmas Eve. We didn’t have anything on it, but we had a tree and that was really cool.”

The family continued to try to scratch out a living, moving first to Selah, Wash., and then to Union Gap, Wash. During middle school, Traynor waited tables to earn money for basics like food and clothing for her family.

Through it all, Traynor’s mother, Barbara, emphasized a consistent message: Education is the ticket out.

“I didn’t understand it for a long time because no one in my family, on either side, has ever gone on to college,” Traynor says. “That was very difficult to do in my family and especially for a female. My education was my mother’s doing.”

Her mother also taught her the value of hard work, self sufficiency and stubbornness, which Traynor carried with her to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. With a scholarship, grants and loans, she succeeded in earning a degree in Spanish and a minor in Japanese. Yet, Traynor still suffered from the abuse at home.

“I was a sophomore in college and I went back on spring break to see my family. My father pulled a loaded gun on my mother and threatened to kill her, and then he turned it on me,” she says.

When she returned to college, Traynor, who had been an excellent student, quickly began flunking her courses. A female professor took her aside, urged her to share what was bothering her and helped Traynor seek protection.

“By then, I knew what I wanted in life and what I would never put up with again,” Traynor says.

“Going through the system as a victim of domestic violence was less than satisfactory, especially in a very small town,” she adds. “I think it can make a person feel like more of a victim because you feel like it’s your fault. That’s when I thought, ‘This is not ok. This is not how it should be. There’s right and wrong and that was definitely wrong,’ so that’s when I knew I was going to law school.”

Traynor chose Lewis & Clark’s Northwestern School of Law where, newly married to her college boyfriend, Greg Traynor, she could go to school while he worked in Portland. She earned her law degree in 1993 and began clerking for the Oregon Supreme Court. Traynor, who had her first child in 1994 and a set of twins in 1996, shared the clerk job with another mom/attorney for four years.

In 1997, Traynor’s husband received a job transfer to Hong Kong, allowing the family to experience the transfer from British to Chinese rule. It also exposed the family to a very different way of life, an experience Traynor says was invaluable.

“It’s funny because we take the small things for granted. In Hong Kong, a grass lawn is very difficult to grow, and we lived in a high-rise apartment building where the grass was roped off so people wouldn’t walk on it,” she says. “When we came back to the U.S., my kids wouldn’t touch the grass. Then, when they finally did, the sensory feeling of it was so strange for them.”

While she initially thought she would work as a contract attorney or civil litigator, Traynor’s practice area of interest changed as one of her children experienced learning difficulties. Once overwhelmed by the maze she had to navigate to obtain government assistance for a child with special needs, Traynor now serves as a special needs and education attorney.

“I never knew this area of law existed. I had never heard of it and I certainly didn’t intend to hang out a shingle and practice it,” she says. “My son was my first client and then it just exploded.”

Licensed to practice in Oregon, Washington and California, Traynor faces a growing caseload of families with special needs. Among the issues she handles are seclusion and restraint cases, which examine the legality of using physical restraints — such as strapping a child to a chair or restraining them against a wall — or secluding them in a room by themselves as a disciplinary measure.

The use of service animals presents another pressing issue in Traynor’s practice specialty. As more children are diagnosed with autism, anxiety disorders, diabetes and epilepsy, education officials increasingly are struggling with how to integrate assistance animals into schools.

Among the cultural shifts that give her hope is the growing societal awareness that certain terms used in referring to disabled people are not appropriate. The word “retarded” is one example.

“When you are in the disability world those words can have a very hurtful impact, and teachers, parents and others have been rallying to change that language,” she says, noting “individual with intellectual disability” is now the accepted term. “These changes in words give people their dignity.”

Traynor experienced firsthand the bias people with disabilities face when she was diagnosed in 2008 with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.

“I struggled with it in the beginning because I shared that (diagnosis) with a few people and they reacted oddly,” she says, adding she lost a few clients who didn’t want to work with an attorney who had MS. “I expected people to react differently to somebody diagnosed with a disability, especially in the world of disability.”

Though she has been in remission for almost a year, Traynor has needed to use certain accommodations, such as a new pencil grip, a roll cart and a computer that accommodates vision loss she suffered as a result of optic neuritis. Her MS diagnosis has resulted in some positive changes as well, though.

“MS makes me a better lawyer because I’m a lawyer with a disability who practices disability law,” she says. “I’ve recommended to clients that they make changes that seemed little in my mind. Now I have a whole new empathy for children and adult students and their families about how hard it really is to make some of those changes.”

Traynor has witnessed some positive impacts in her personal life as well.

“I used to work seven days a week and I was on call all the time. My health suffered and my family suffered. One day my neurologist asked me, ‘Is this the way you want to live?’”

Traynor says she went cold turkey by leaving her laptop at work overnight and turning off her cell phone when she leaves her office.

“It’s made me a better mother, wife and friend because when I’m home I’m one hundred percent at home, and when I’m at work I’m one hundred percent at work,” she says.

Traynor also began riding horses as therapy and quickly became smitten with her new hobby. She now owns a horse named Joey and recently attended Cowgirl Up!, a camp in eastern Oregon where women hone their riding skills.

“I love being with my horse because when I’m really down or had a horrible day at work or am stressed out about something, that all goes away because there’s just unconditional love,” Traynor explains. “It’s helped me connect with my boys, too, because sometimes we go out to the barn and spend time together.”

Family connections extend to the relatives with whom she experienced such hardship. She is in contact with her brothers, and while she didn’t speak to her father for 15 years, Traynor did see him a couple of times at her mother’s request. Traynor’s mother is happily remarried, and Traynor says she prefers to focus on her relationship with her stepfather.

Through it all, Traynor has experienced growing appreciation for the invaluable wisdom her mother imparted when she pushed Traynor to pursue her education and thereby break the destructive cycle within their family.

“I didn’t really understand it until I was in my 40s, but what my mother did for me was miraculous.”

And, despite the verbal and physical abuse that filled Lana Traynor’s home while she was growing up, her mother, Barbara, allowed no excuses for what her three children chose to do — or not to do — because of their father’s violence.

Now married for nearly 21 years and the mother of three teenage sons, Traynor and her husband, Greg, are focused on teaching their sons to respect others, regardless of a person’s gender, stature or beliefs.

And, by sharing their deeply personal story, Traynor and her mother hope to help others who may be imprisoned in abusive relationships.

“Breaking the cycle of domestic violence seems like an insurmountable task, but she did it and so did I,” Traynor says. “It’s important to my mother and to me to acknowledge that ‘breaking the cycle’ of domestic violence can occur.”

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2010 Melody Finnemore

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