Most children’s first experience of death is through the loss of their grandparents or great-grandparents. However, approximately 1.5 million children under the age of 15 lose one or both of their parents, leaving them susceptible to many lifelong implications associated with such early trauma.
At the onset, Emily Mills Hawk’s life in Akron, Ohio was idyllic. Her family enjoyed a sitcom-worthy hometown and amenities, thanks to their longtime settlement in the town where her beloved father grew up and eventually established his law practice.
“I adored my father. He was a stereotypical middle-class, mid-sized city’s 1960s-70s attorney who practiced in small partnerships and on his own. He litigated, often on behalf of those who nobody else would represent due to any number of socio-economic characteristics. He’d trade services and work without pay, and from the many stories shared with me by other Akron attorneys and judges, my father was dazzling in the courtroom. He loved to laugh; he loved his family and friends fiercely, and his weekday lunches largely consisted of strong gin martinis with two olives. It’s how he escaped life’s challenges. He was flawed for sure, but he was mine,” Emily remembers.
Emily’s family dynamic shifted with the loss of her father when she was just eight years old. Despite her heartbreak and the harsh reality of being a fatherless daughter hanging over her adolescence, Emily knew one thing: She was destined to practice law, just like her father before her.
“I had the luxury of never having to wonder what I was ‘going to be,’ or what I’d pursue professionally. It was law. In my bones, I knew I was going to be a lawyer. I didn’t know why; I never cared to ask. It was akin to knowing the sky was blue and that grass grew under my feet. It just was.”
Escaping What Once Was
After heading to DePauw University for college (where she met her husband-to-be) and then back to Akron to the University of Akron School of Law for law school, Emily and her fiancé settled in Indianapolis, ready for a fresh start. And a fresh start was sorely needed; Emily had recently lost her mother to pancreatic cancer just before achieving some of her biggest accomplishments and life milestones: her law school graduation, Indiana Bar admission, and wedding.
“Triggered to escape by my mother’s death, I welcomed a move to Indy. Marrying my college sweetheart in October 1997 filled my parentless void. In my husband, I received a strong, loyal man to love me and live with me through my remaining life’s adventures. I also received new parents who loved and supported me as their own. My need to escape quieted, wrapped in the joy of my new family,” Emily explains.
Settling into her new life in Indiana and supported by her inherited family, she began her legal career at the Public Defender of Indiana. There, she represented men on Indiana’s death row in State post-conviction appeals. The work was intense and some of the best she’s ever experienced, thanks in part to the people she worked alongside.
“My first tribe of colleagues were (and continue to be) wicked-smart, endlessly compassionate, crazy-talented, and always quick to laugh in the face of extraordinary challenge and sadness. It turns out that laughter is a really terrific escape. I’ll forever be grateful for the Indianapolis and Indiana criminal defense community for all of those reasons and memories,” Emily says.
Leaving Her Legal Destiny to Create Another
Emily decided to step away from the career she’d claimed as a young girl, shifting her attention and vocation to parenting her and her husband’s first child, a baby boy.
“My first departure from law was less an ‘escape’ than an intentional and reconciled walking away, being blessed with our first child late in 2000. I’d found the one thing that would pull me away from the law: our son.”
Determined to apply the lessons learned from her devastating experience in childhood, Emily was committed to building a life where her family came first. Blessed with her second son three years later, Emily relished her time with her children.
“The years of being a career mom were nothing short of awesome for me, in the truest sense of that word. Those two young men have brought so much joy and love that there is nary a need for escape anymore,” Emily reflects.
Her sons moved into their school years, and Emily found herself not looking for an escape, but a return to her craft. However, her admiration for the beauty, history, and allure of the law was clouded by the grind most commonly associated with the field.
“The practice of law can be grueling. Long delays, constant adversity, and millions of shades of grays with sometimes devastating losses exhausted me. So, I walked away a second time,” Emily explains.
Focusing Her Sights on Building a Better City
However, her second step back from the practice she’d been destined to pursue landed her at the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, or “Indy Chamber,” where her public defender’s office background gave her a leg up as she shifted into her role as a re-entry and general business coach. The career shift provided Emily with the respite she so desperately craved after feeling the weight of unrealistic expectations often placed on those in the legal field.
“My departures from law were neither the desperate fleeing nor the excited exit commonly associated with ‘escape.’ I chose career moves away from practicing law out of a primal need for my own change. Great and sometimes unfair expectations are attached to lawyers in our society. Work without stopping. Change everything. Perform small miracles. Keep all the secrets. Make it all better. I felt some of that as a practicing lawyer, and I escaped it in another career move,” Emily says.
Emily was able to leverage her background for good, focusing on what could be and helping citizens achieve their business or personal dreams.
“I escaped career elements that nagged at my soul and found work that feeds it, in connecting and advancing people and groups in our City and Region. Non-profit supports for business owners, budding entrepreneurs and businesses in general must work in efficiency, inclusion and collaboration. Without it, there is waste and looming failure. Indy Chamber, BOI and the REDi program have been successful business advocates for years because of the things they do right. It’s been an honor to be on those teams.”
And Emily’s efforts have paid off, for the city and her career. In January 2022, she returned to the law as General Counsel for the Indy Chamber. This time, the return is with a glad and grateful heart, with optimism and opportunity at the forefront.
“The best of the law is part of my daily work for my organization: connecting, advancing, uplifting, and supporting small business owners, hopeful entrepreneurs, Main Street businesses, and anchor business institutions that advance our people and places,” Emily explains.
Emily turns 50 this May, and the relevance of this birthday is not lost on her. Having now outlived her father, practicing in his beloved profession, and built a family of her own, Emily’s facing her new decade with no escape on the horizon.
“I get to be a mom and wife first, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. I think my mother and father smile along with me and love and support me to this day. I’m surrounded by people who are smart and kind and who give and give in an environment built on uplifting and advancing; it’s a very nice place to be. Career changes can be a wild ride. But when you are true to your soul and stand firm in who you are and what you believe, the professional adventure is absolutely worth the ride,” Emily says.
And if you are considering your own career switch or personal transformation, Emily offers this sentiment:
“Cheers to your boldness and your escapes, whenever you may need them: may they be only fulfilling celebrations of change!”
Created in partnership with Indy Chamber.
Natalie Derrickson is a communications professional, strategist, and writer in support of aligning your career with your values and prioritizing family and personal pursuits above the grind. You can connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and her website.
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