National Stroke Awareness Month: Attorney grateful for growing practice after setbacks

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Leslie Butler was a 39-year-old law school student when she went to bed on June 15, 2006. The busy mother of two, who was five weeks into the seven-week semester, had a long to-do list.

Suffering a stroke in the middle of the night wasn't on the list.

When she woke up the next morning, Butler felt like she had a bad head cold. She just didn't want to get out of bed. When her husband spoke to her as he passed the bed, her reply was garbled.

"And then I realized I couldn't get out of bed," said the Ann Arbor resident.

In the emergency room, Butler--a young, healthy, non-smoker with no family history--was surprised to learn she'd had a stroke.

Doctors also decided that the severe migraine headache that had brought her to the ER a year earlier and had left her with "foggy head" for two months afterwards had also been a stroke, though a milder one.

Five days later, Butler was able return home, where she continued her therapy. But she had to quit school to focus on getting healthy.

"It gives you a serious attitude adjustment when you have a stroke three months before your fortieth birthday," said Butler. "It makes turning 40 not that big a deal. You're very thankful that you're going to turn 40."

In the fall, she was back at Wayne State University Law School just two nights a week. She trimmed her schedule as much as possible, and her grades improved.

"You can integrate yourself right back into life," she said. "You may have to change what you were doing before, but it could be better than what you were doing before. It might be different. But it won't necessarily be worse."

Doctors were never able to tell her what caused her strokes. Her fear of reoccurrence has decreased with time.

"It's just like anything else in life: It's a factor. It can happen," she said.

After she passed the bar, she realized her best bet was to go into private practice.

"Yes, my grades suffered because I'd had a stroke, and some law firms would like to see more extracurriculars," she said. "I said, 'I know I'm going to be a good attorney. I know I can do this.' And I had my husband's support. So I just started on my own.'"

By any measure, Butler took the non-conventional route to her law career.

The 1984 Chelsea High School graduate attended the American College for Applied Arts in Atlanta, married and had a baby boy, enrolled at Eastern Michigan, and had another baby.

Butler designed wedding gowns for a shop in Manchester for a while. Then in 1993, she and her husband decided to buy a 20-acre farm in Leelanau County and plant an organic orchard.

While they waited for their 500 apple trees to mature, they tended bar, waited tables, worked in a bakery.

By the spring of 1999, their trees that were just about ready to bloom developed a bacterial disease that killed about 450 of them.

Then the peach trees they'd planted in 1994 developed a deadly brown rot.

And that was it.

They sold everything and moved into family housing at the University of Michigan while she earned her history degree. And then, while working full time as an office administrator at a realty office, she went to Wayne Law at night.

Butler and her husband, Terry, a self-employed print-maker, just celebrated their 25th anniversary, and love to go ballroom, swing, or Latin dancing. They have two sons, Brendan, 24, who works at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library and does construction work, and Kieran, 21, a computer programmer in Ann Arbor.

Butler is now in her fourth year of private practice, which focuses on real estate, estate planning and business law. In February, she moved out of her home office to an office on Boardwalk just a couple of miles away.

"I find I'm more productive because I don't have my cat interrupting my day," she said.

Business has been gradually picking up these past few months to the point she can now call it "booming."

"And I'm hearing that across the board," said Butler, who is assisted by two Cooley law students.

"I really like helping my business clients and helping them see value in going to an attorney. I know there are lots of small business owners--especially in the recent market--who've been very hesitant to spend money. And I'm just really pleased when I'm able to get done what they need to have done, and show quality and value."

The stroke was on the right side of her brain and affected the left side of her body. She still has some neck and shoulder pain, and some slight trouble eating certain foods.

But she doesn't think much about any of that.

When she realizes how far she's come to get where she is, Butler is incredibly grateful.

"Obviously the day-to-day grind still beats on you occasionally," she said, "but when the really important things happen, I'm able to keep perspective."

For information on risk factors, and how to prevent and identify stroke, go to www. stroke.org.

Published: Wed, May 16, 2012

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