Hometown: Merchantville, New Jersey
Family: Husband Mark Hobson, four adult children, 2 grandchildren
Education: B.A. in English, Georgetown University; J.D. , University of Pittsburgh
Occupation: Partner at Stafford Owens, appointed attorney for Clinton County
Select Community Involvement, New York State Surrogate Decision-Making Committee, Board of Directors of the United Way of the Adirondack Region
Jaci Kelleher, partner in the Stafford Owens law firm, is perhaps best known locally for her expertise in employment law. She has been helping businesses and organizations navigate this complicated and ever-changing area of law since 2000 when she moved to the area with her young family. She took up residence in Au Sable Forks, primarily because it was located halfway between her law office in Plattsburgh and her husband’s work in Lake Placid. The town really fit their life- style and Kelleher speaks fondly of it. In spite of what they think they ‘should’ do now that their children are grown, they can’t seem to find the desire to move from the small town they still enjoy.
As a young girl Kelleher’s family predicted her career path. “All my life family members told me I should become a lawyer because I was always arguing,” she lightheartedly recalled. After finishing college, Kelleher took some time away from school to recalibrate. She stumbled into marriage and motherhood during that time, settling in Pittsburgh. As a mother with two young children under the age of five, she made the decision to tackle law school. “It was way easier than being home with them full time!” she joked. Kelleher graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and worked as a lawyer there until moving to the North Country
Following are excerpts from Strictly Business’ interview with Jaci Kelleher.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
JK: Success is easier if you can figure out the culture of the employer and work within it. I learned that when I had school-aged kids who wanted to play soccer. There were not enough coaches, so I volunteered. What I realized was that the men who ran the law firm respected coaches in a way that they did not respect a Mom taking her kids to soccer practice. They were fine with me leaving work to coach, but they would have had a far different reaction if I was just leaving in my minivan to watch their practice. It was a real ‘lightbulb moment’ when I realized that.
SB: How did you decide to practice employment law?
JK: When I finished law school, employment law did not exist. Employment laws started to spring up beginning with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1991. Since that time, there have been all kinds of laws that have been enacted to help people in protected classes against discrimination at work. The result is that it has made questions around pay scale, discipline, promotions, and terminations a lot more complicated than they were in the past.
When I came to Plattsburgh, no one was practicing employment law. I wanted to grow the business, so I started reaching out to find places to talk about it to the business community.
SB: What advice would you offer to someone starting his or her business career?
JK: Your first and most important client is your boss. You need to figure out what your boss needs you to do, and then do it as best you can. It is only when the boss comes to trust in and rely on you that they are willing to turn you loose on their clients and others.
SB: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
JK: Happiness is a choice. It is from my mom. She lived it. Every day we have challenges and we have to choose to be happy. That was just how she was. She taught me that when you are faced with challenges it is easier to put one foot in front of the other if you are pursuing happiness than if you are feeling like there is no hope.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
JK: Right now, the most influential person in my life is my niece Sarah who lives in Los Angeles. She has gotten me into yoga and a healthier life- style. She lives her life on her own terms, and she is an inspiration to me.
SB: What have you done to incorporate those lessons into your life?
JK: My daughter graduated from law school a few years ago, and as a graduation present, I took her to a weeklong yoga retreat that my niece Sarah was running in Costa Rica. Running around on the beach with no responsibilities for the week was inspiring and a ton of fun. I was able to recapture that playful childish feeling.
After that I started going to yoga and working out regularly. I could hear Sarah’s voice in my head as I was doing these things. It was a real treat to get reintroduced to the playful side of exercise.
SB: Tell me about your greatest failure or missed opportunity in your career?
JK: When I was 19, I already had a job lined up for the summer as a lifeguard when my brother got me a job working at a computer company. This was about 1982 when computers were brand new. I didn’t want to do that for the summer, so I turned it down. Looking back, I could have gotten in on the ground floor with computers.
SB: What is your favorite quote and how does it speak to you in your life?
JK: I like this Irish proverb: ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ I am part of a big Irish Catholic clan. People are just so important to me. Connections with people are what matters, and we have to care for each other.
SB: If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you offer her?
JK: If you can’t eat, and you can’t sleep, and you wish you were dead, you are depressed. You have to get help. I have a family history of depression. I didn’t really have a name for it at the time. It was my husband who realized there was something going on with me and he encouraged me to get treatment. I have been taking medication for depression since the 1990’s. I spoke at the Evening of Healing event last year. Depression is no different than diabetes or any other chronic condition.
SB: What would you tell someone who is struggling with these feelings?
JK: I would say that for me, what I thought were genuine feelings of hopelessness turned out to be something that went away through medication and self-care. That made me realize that they weren’t really feelings, they were symptoms. It is not some- thing you can just power through on your own. Try talking to someone about it. One of the things I learned in therapy is that when you say out loud the worst thing you think you could ever admit, it loses its power.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
JK: There are a lot of people who are experts at what they do and are the leaders in their field who use me as a sounding board and call me for advice and perspective.
SB: What is something that not everyone knows about you?
JK: I am a frustrated stand-up comic. I like to do training on legal issues because I enjoy having a captive audience, and nothing makes me happier than a sold-out show.
SB: What habits do you have that contribute to your success?
JK: I listen and try to get as much information as is available before I start drawing conclusions. I used to work with a guy who said, ‘Change the facts, change the law.’ When the facts change, it can change what the law says about them. I don’t listen just to draw conclusions, I lis- ten to what is really going on.
SB: If you could have dinner and spend an evening with any well- known person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
JK: Michelle Obama. I think it’s because she is about my age, she is a lawyer and she got to live in the White House. She just seems like she is a very ‘together’ person. I think she would be really interesting to talk with.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
JK: Continuing to have educational opportunities for people is important, as well as continuing to attract businesses and build out our area as a transportation hub. Keep the manufacturing jobs. Getting broadband internet throughout the region is really key to helping people telecommute and work remotely.
This is an affordable area that allows people to be entrepreneurial. The growing numbers of young people running small farms is really great. This wasn’t going on when I moved here in the 2000’s. It is a huge asset in terms of providing great food, but there are also cultural aspects to being more connected with what you are eating.