Woman masters goals

Lawyer: A decision to defy her father has paid off for an attorney appointed as an adviser to judges on domestic cases.

January 17, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

When Phyllis Brown went to college, her father suggested that she take education courses because someday she might want to become a teacher.

Teaching was a good job for a woman, he told her, whether or not she ever married.

That was in the 1970s and Brown, the youngest of four children and the only girl in her family, devised a plan to deal with her father, a well-established and well-meaning lawyer in Rockville.

"I decided not to take any education courses," says Brown, a 46-year-old mother of two.

Instead, she followed her father into law, a career decision that paid off this month when she was formally appointed to one of three highly sought-after domestic master posts in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The $71,000-a-year posts were made full-time positions in 1998 to help handle the 6,000 domestic cases that are filed in Baltimore County each year. Before that, domestic masters served part time and were allowed to keep law practices on the side.

The change was suggested by Circuit Court judges and approved by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Masters conduct formal hearings to help judges sift through the emotionally charged issues that are part of most divorce cases.

"I love it," Brown said. "It's interesting, it's different and it's given me the opportunity to use my experience over the past 20 years."

The most difficult part of the job, she said, is trying to decide which parent gets custody of a child in a divorce.

"Oftentimes you have two loving and caring parents, and everybody involved sincerely wants what's best for the child," she said.

Masters are appointed by the 16 Circuit Court judges, who rely heavily on masters' recommendations before signing orders that determine custody issues, visitation rights, child support and alimony payments.

"We could not live without them," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II, a family law expert.

Brown had 20 years' experience in family law when she was selected in November from a field of 30 lawyers who applied for the position.

Born and raised in the Montgomery County community of Dickerson, Brown graduated from Holton Arms School in Bethesda and went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she majored in English and history and minored in economics.

After graduating, she attended the University of Maryland Law School.

She graduated in 1977 and joined a Baltimore firm, where as the only woman among 16 lawyers she began to focus on family law.

"I guess they thought that being a woman, I'd be more sensitive," she said.

She practiced until 1988, when she quit for three years to raise her two sons, now 15 and 16.

Brown opened her practice in Towson in 1991, and four years later joined a former associate to form a partnership that specialized in family law.

"I think she's one of the most qualified people to ever hold the job," said Brown's former partner, Andrea Forrester Kelly.

They dissolved the partnership in 1998 when Kelly decided to leave the law firm and accept a post as an administrator with a start-up computer software company in San Jose, Calif., Kelly said.

Brown replaces Richard D. Payne, who retired this month.

"I think you've got to have an understanding of human nature and a desire to help," said Payne, 70, a Catonsville lawyer who served as a domestic master for 24 years.

C. Theresa Beck, who is president of the Baltimore County Bar Association and has been a domestic master since 1993, said she expects Brown to do well because she possesses a characteristic that is critical for the job.

"Mostly, I think it requires being a good listener," she said.

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