Most lawyers spend years preparing for law school. Tonya MacBeth, a 2005 graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, is not most lawyers.
After studying psychology, sociology and Spanish as an undergrad, she spent a decade working in the mental health field when her career hit a sudden roadblock. The advocacy work that she had been contracted to do with the state of Arizona was under a class-action lawsuit, Arnold v. Sarn, and the litigants in the case were requiring a lawyer to be in charge of the state agency.
The stakeholders apologetically told MacBeth she wouldn’t be eligible to lead the agency, despite her years of dedicated service.
“Being the Type A person that I am, I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my career being second fiddle,” she said. “So I thought, ‘I better go to law school.’”
The last Law School Admission Test that could be taken that year was a mere 30 days away, she had never before considered law school, and she had been out of college for 10 years. But she was undeterred.
“I sat down with the LSAT study books and decided to really dive in to the questions, how they ask the questions, and go for it,” she said, reasoning that she had a fighting chance to pass it because the test is more about problem-solving and vocabulary than legal issues. “So I studied for the LSAT, applied for ASU, just barely got in under the application deadline, went to law school, and never looked back.”
It was a major turning point in her career, and when she graduated from law school, she had different goals in mind. She credits her experience at ASU Law — the clinical work and the engaging professors— with broadening her horizons. And she was concerned that if she went right back to her previous government work, she would never have any other options.
“Coming out of law school, and having had the mental health and government experiences, I thought it was very important to have a the experiences being a litigator,” she said. “Because a litigator versus an administrator, it's very different work.”
Knowing very few lawyers upon graduation, she was determined to build a network. So she rolled up her sleeves and built one, beginning with an old-fashioned letter-writing campaign.
“That was back when we actually wrote letters,” she recalled with a laugh. “I wrote letters to prominent attorneys in the Valley that I had known of, through news reports and magazine articles — the movers and shakers in town — and asked them to have coffee with me. And when I met them, at the end of the coffee, I would say, ‘If you know of anybody who’s hiring, here’s my resume, and please feel free to forward it on.’”
One of those attorneys she met with was Chip Harris, who was one of the top civil, personal injury and medical malpractice attorneys in the Valley. And when she handed him her resume and told him to pass it along to anybody who might be hiring, he just laughed.
“He said, ‘Well, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I hire you?’” she said.
And that’s how her legal career began, at the Harris, Powers & Cunningham law firm. A few years later, while working at her next firm, after a particularly interesting case came to a close, she called the opposing counsel in one of her cases, Ian Neale, and asked if he would meet for lunch. Much like her meeting with Harris, that lunch led to an employment offer to join the Burch & Cracchiolo firm. She joined in 2008 and has been with the firm ever since.
“It just goes to show that reaching out and making those personal connections really does still work,” she said. “We can talk about networking on LinkedIn, or email or whatever. But having those face-to-face meetings is where things really happen.”
She initially worked in civil litigation for Burch & Cracchiolo, focusing on construction defect and defense work, but when an opportunity arose to move into family law, she jumped at the opportunity to get closer to her career roots.
“I love it — it’s a perfect practice for me,” she said. “I'm a rational, reasonable person who has enough mental health background to know to handle it when people are in crisis and keep the focus on what needs to get done, to accomplish the larger financial and long-term parental goals without getting into the weeds on the inter-personal conflicts.”
It’s difficult work but highly gratifying, because of the personal stakes her clients have in the cases.
“I really enjoy this particular practice area, because clients really care about the outcomes,” she said. “Having done insurance defense work, it's a different level of intensity and different level of interest in the outcome. For insurance companies, it's a dollars and cents cost-benefit analysis. But in family law, these are people's lives. So if you're going to stay up until 3 o'clock in the morning, it might as well be thinking about somebody's future as opposed to concrete thickness.”
MacBeth is now a shareholder in the firm and remains active in the community. She serves on the board for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, and chairs the Advisory Board for the CHEEERS Recovery Center, a peer-run recovery program focused on individuals and families affected by behavioral health conditions, and is active in State and county politics, having run twice for the legislature. The Az Business magazine recently named her one of the 50 Most Influential Women in Arizona Business, an annual list that recognizes the state’s female leaders for their impact on their organizations, the region’s business climate and the local community.
“It was a real honor to know that my involvement in the community and my law practice as a whole does have an influence on the direction of the Valley,” she said, recalling her surprise when she received the 50 Most Influential Women recognition. “And it’s not just me, but it’s all the people I work with through all my endeavors that I bring together that made this happen.”
It’s an honor she said she never could have imagined years ago, when she was a mental health advocate suddenly cramming for the LSAT and hoping to get into ASU Law. At the time, her husband was a Phoenix firefighter and they were raising two young children, so ASU Law seemed like the only viable option.
“We weren’t moving, so I couldn’t go anywhere else,” she said. “I was very fortunate that ASU allowed me to attend, and I can’t imagine what would have happened if they had said no.”
And she is thankful to Burch & Cracchiolo for unwavering support of her community service.
“The firm has been very supportive of that community engagement, and I really feel that that helps me be a better lawyer, because I'm out in the world, I'm not just in my books,” she said. “And I really love Arizona and I love the Valley, and I want to make it as strong a place as possible. I love being out there, engaging in different endeavors. Whether it's politics or community service, mental health services, it all comes together to make the web that supports Phoenix stronger.”