Debbra J. Gottschalk found getting a law practice started almost as formidable as getting through the University of Tulsa College of Law.
It took a hard push from her mother keep her forging ahead through difficult times as she began her practice.
‘‘I listened to what mom said, went back to class and got my law degree in 1976,’’ she said.
Gottschalk’s interest in law began when she was about four-years-old in her native town Coffeyville, Kan. That was when she noticed family attorney Clement Hall help her parents get through a legal maze. The problems had seemed insurmountable and Hall was able to fix them.
She liked the way Hall worked and felt she could do that style of work.
Initially after graduation, she wanted to practice criminal law and applied with Tulsa District Attorney S.M. ‘‘Buddy’’ Fallis for a position in that office.
Gottschalk didn’t get the job and stepped out to establish her own shop. It proved to be a learning experience.
She didn’t have mentors and found that law school provided theory, not the real side of a practice.
It took one year for her to understand that when a judge made a ruling that attorneys prepared the journal entry for his signature.
‘‘I was too proud to ask how to do the work,’’ she said, ‘‘and passed that work on to the opposing attorney.’’ The document involved writing what the judge said so both attorneys could sign off on the order. As a result, journal entries sometimes would be more favorable to the opposing party.
Once Gottschalk understood the journal entry requirements, she started doing the work. It was just one learning step, the first of many.
Varied cases came her way, including Social Security Disability appellate work, criminal cases and contract work.
Some case files were amazing, Gottschalk noted. It was fascinating that documents would require 42 pages that could be adequately stated and summed up in two — and simple enough for everyone to read.
She credited her English and journalism background for her ability to write. Those skills, which would come in handy when writing briefs, were developed while on the high school yearbook staff, work on the Coffeyville Junior College newspaper and as editor of the TU Law School newspaper.
Gottschalk handled worker’s comp and found skills learned the work translated well into the Social Security disability cases. The ruling Social Security ruling at that time was that a person was not disabled unless they had injuries or an illness that lasted more than a year and likely would result in death.
She remembered that the longest time she ever waited for a fee. It involved a Social Security case and it took eight years to collect.
The federal government, which paid the fee from the award, was fighting over the amount of money was due to Gottschalk.
‘‘I finally wrote, advising Social Security the matter was mute because the person involved in the case had died,’’ she said.
For a time Gottschalk had a partner, Mary Francis McDaniel.
McDaniel later opted to go to medical school and now practices in California.
However, Gottschalk describes their work together as a ‘‘Lucy and Ethel’’ team.
‘‘Mary Francis is one of the finest people I know,’’ she said.
The positive side of a solo practice is Gottschalk knows the status of all the work to be done. On the negative side, there is no conveniently available to bounce legal questions off of. This is particularly important when handling cases going to the Supreme Court or the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While appellate work is not a regular part of the routine, Gottschalk said she has been successful in both courts.
Gottschalk, as a trial lawyer, would have to overcome snide remarks from male counterparts as she began her career.
Serving on the Oklahoma Trial Lawyers board of directors for seven years, she became an advocate for helping protect woman. She also took a lot of heat from the ‘‘good old boy’’ system because someone in her family didn’t have a legal background.
She didn’t want to join that group until, as she describes it, ‘‘April Sellers White embarrassed me into joining.
‘‘I learned to be a fast thinker on my feet while on that committee,’’ she said.
That experience would serve her well as she learned about the legal industry and how people would react.
Gottschalk admitted she was stressed out as cases began, often getting sick just before going into the courtroom, a situation unknown to most people, especially clients.
She recalled a real estate case in Wagoner where she went up against a ‘‘grizzled old attorney.’’
The situation involved a young couple that purchased a home and everything was wrong with the property.
‘‘I knew that if I lost, that couple would lose everything they had,’’ she said. ‘‘I felt that it would be devastating if I lost, that all it would take would be one mistake.’’
Gottschalk won the case for the family who thought she didn’t care about the litigation.
That perceived attitude on the part of the clients really hurt, she said.
She still experiences stress, but no longer gets sick prior to trials.
It was during those trials that she came to a real appreciation of the work by the court clerk’s staff, the bailiff and court reporter.
These people are in place to help — if attorneys will let them.
Early in her career, Gottschalk volunteered at Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma, now Legal Services of Oklahoma.
She recalled an employee who fully understood what was going on.
‘‘If I was told to do this, I did it,’’ Gottschalk said. ‘‘If she said it was wrong, it was wrong.’’
New lawyers have a lot to learn when they leave school, she said. The first thing they must put aside is their pride and the feeling they know it all. It is better to look stupid by asking a question than not get the job representing a client done properly.
‘‘Personally, I can’t imagine doing anything else than practice law. I don’t want to be a judge,’’ Gottschalk said.
Looking ahead, Gottschalk hopes to keep practicing at least another 30 years.
‘‘I like what I do,’’ she said, adding that as she continues to gain experience, she has developed strategies in representing clients.
It doesn’t take as much time to prepare cases and it helps to have a terrific memory.
Yet, it takes a lot of time to prepare for a court, perhaps eight days for a trial that might last five days. That work includes discoveries, preparation of exhibits and having witnesses available.
Very seldom are there ‘‘trials by ambush,’’ she said.
Even though there were no attorneys in Gottschalk’s family, her family was very supportive.
Her father was concerned about his daughter when she made the decision to enter law school. He knew the profession and was afraid she would be hurt.
It was when things started getting tough that her mother gave her that badly needed push to succeed.
‘‘Mom told me that once I started quitting it would be a hard habit to break,’’ Gottschalk said.
‘‘I am grateful for dad’s concern, but mom paid attention to detail and was a big support,’’ Gottschalk said. ‘‘I am especially glad I listened to her. Both told me that with education that I could be anything I wanted to be.’’
Gottschalk can be reached at 496-5531.