Attorney's unusual advice is true reflection of her life

by Cynthia Price
Legal News
“Own your degree, don’t let your degree own you,” advised local attorney Barbara Craft, speaking last week at Thomas M. Cooley Law School. “What you’re now aspiring to attain is precious and you will guard it and cherish it for the rest of your life, but it’s a tool. Use it  but don’t let it take up your whole life.”
That message may not have been what the dozens of students who attended the noontime presentation on work/life balance expected to hear. But judging from the reaction, it was a message they were open to.
And Craft means it when she says that her life is her own. It was not easy, but Craft and her husband John Otterbacher, a clinical psychologist, worked hard at their professional careers, notched down their material expectations,  and saved  enough so they could freely indulge in a great adventure. The nature of their particular adventure was to sail across the Atlantic. They did this twice — and expect to again.
It is not as if Craft’s legal career has been negligible. She managed to get her law degree, cum laude, from the Lansing campus of Cooley Law School, while working full time for the speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives. Her previous degree in Political Science and Russian from Western Michigan University positioned her for that job, but she was very happy Cooley’s opening allowed her to  pursue her degree.
At that time, Craft would decompress by ... coloring. She discovered that the stress of working full time while going to law school eased when she took up coloring book and crayons, relaxing into the relative mindlessness of the task.
In fact, she said that she had thought about bringing materials for the audience to color while she spoke, but was not sure how much to bring.
When Craft moved to Grand Rapids — “I followed a man, and so far it’s worked out” — she got a job at Legal Aid of West Michigan. That rewarding work was followed by several years as managing attorney at the UAW-GM Legal Services plan, which served hourly General Motors employees, a huge number at the time, in such areas as real estate, family law, estate planning, probate, consumer issues and bankruptcy. 
Craft started her own law firm in 1990, primarily based on comprehensive planning so she and her husband could reach their goal of long-term sailing once again.
She has taught law classes at Michigan State University, the Michigan Judicial Institute and at Davenport University, where she is currently the Department Coordi-nator of Legal Studies for the Grand Rapids campus. She runs the school’s paralegal program as well.
She has also found time to be on the board of the Legal Assistance Center, and maintain a long list of memberships: several State Bar sections, the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, the American Association for Paralegal Educators, and NALS. She currently serves on the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Board of Trustees and chairs the Bar’s Lawyer Referral and Information Services Committee.
All of this while raising children, one of whom recently had a baby of his own, with one still in college and one a senior in high school.
But her very full life would be less meaningful to her if she had not been able to pursue her dream of sailing across the Atlantic, and spending stress-free time as an “urban rat” in the cities of Europe.
Craft had spent a brief time after she took the bar exam helping at-risk young people in the Outward Bound program, which involved learning to sail. When she and her husband were newlyweds, they took a week-long vacation, and both Craft and Otterbacher bemoaned the fact that it was not long enough.
At that point, a plan was hatched to live their lives in a way that would allow them to take off long periods of time. They zeroed in on a long sailing trip, and set out to make it happen.
At the time, neither was a great sailor. Craft told the story of racing in the Queens Cup shortly after buying their first boat. “We had the spinnaker upside down, which is really hard to do but we managed it.”
Part of their commitment was to become better at sailing, but part of it was to keep their professional lives simple enough that they could be abandoned. Both loved their jobs, but felt their careers were only one part of life.
In 1987, they took their son, a teenager, and their newborn along on a year-long trip in which only Otterbacher crossed the Atlantic.
As they experienced how hard it was to “go back to normal,” they promised themselves they would do it again, next time for even longer.
Hearing Craft speak, it becomes clear that daunting amounts of planning were a big factor in the success of their sailing sabbaticals. She had to make detailed plans about how to close down her practice, which involved turning it over to a friend — although getting back into it was much easier than she had thought.
She said she is still getting rid of all the medications she brought along just in case someone became ill.
As they were coming closer to realizing their dream, Otterbacher experienced a series of traumatic heart problems, including open heart surgery. He has written a book about the experience, entitled Sailing Grace.
Though the book is not heavy-handed about it, Otterbacher implies that fulfilling their dream (along with the closeness of his family) is what kept him alive. For more information or to order the book, which is a fascinating read, visit
And Craft seems to feel the same way. “What a blessing to have this degree and this education to help other people with  their struggles and their lives,” she told students, “but don’t live a life you look back on and don’t have much delight in.”