Sept. 21, 2022 – Few Wisconsin lawyers can honestly claim to have handled thousands of divorces, lived in France, and performed a wedding at a Major League Baseball game. Nancy Phelps is one of them.
‘Little House on the Prairie’
Phelps grew up on a 200-acre dairy farm in the Town of Vernon in Waukesha County. She attended a one-room school through the eighth grade.
“There were 23 kids in the school,” Phelps said. “It was one big room and we had one teacher, who was an amazing person – I still remember things that she taught us.”
But Phelps wanted more from life.
“I’d never even been to a grocery store,” Phelps said. “I hadn’t been to a movie or a restaurant … It was like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ My grandmother sewed all of our clothes. In my mind I always wanted to get off the farm.”
A Year Abroad
Phelps’ big chance to broaden her horizons came during her junior year at Carroll College, when she did a study abroad program at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain.
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.
Phelps said she was struck by the damage that was still visible in English cities 17 years after the end of World War II.
“We went to Coventry and it was horrible,” Phelps said.
Coventry suffered the worst one-night bombing inflicted on Great Britain by the Germans during the war.
“There were still just shells of buildings and great big gouges out of the land,” Phelps said. “You could see signs of it all over the whole country, and we’ve never experienced anything like that here.”
During her year in Great Britain, Phelps spent her university holiday living with a family in Marseille.
“They didn’t know English,” Phelps said. “So, by the time I left I could fluently speak French. I even had a dream in French.”
Move to the Big Apple
Phelps’ year abroad whet her appetite for travel. After she graduated from Carroll, she moved to New York City.
“One of my sorority sisters was from New York City and her dad was part owner of an advertising firm there,” Phelps said. “One of the magazines they placed ads in was The New Yorker, and an account executive there needed a secretary.”
During her days at The New Yorker, Phelps brushed elbows with big-name authors like Truman Capote and Rachel Carson. But she yearned for more meaningful work.
“Even though I had a degree, I was a secretary,” Phelps said. “I wanted to do other things but you just didn’t do that in 1963.”
A Fateful Note
So Phelps got married and had two children. When she and her family moved to Wisconsin, she took a job as the secretary to the president of an ad agency in Milwaukee.
On his way out of the office one night in 1968, the president asked Phelps to water the philodendrons in his office.
“For some reason that just got to me,” Phelps said. “It changed my life … I did not go to college to water plants.”
Phelps decided to do something else for work – something difficult. Law and medicine were the natural options. She didn’t think she could handle the sight of blood, so she bought a book on taking the LSAT.
Phelps was admitted to Marquette Law School in 1969. She was one of six women in the class; she was also what today would be termed a “non-traditional” student.
“I had two little kids and you could not go part-time (to law school) then,” Phelps said. “We lived in Hales Corners and the only daycare was the east side of Milwaukee and I always had an eight o’clock class. It was hard.”
How did she do it?
“My one saving grace has been that I’ve never really needed a lot of sleep,” Phelps said. “Other than that, I don’t know how I made it.”
‘I Just Tried to do a Good Job’
A new rule that allowed law students to appear in court went in to effect during Phelps’ second year in law school. She took a job with the Milwaukee County District Attorney office that allowed her to appear in children’s court on a regular basis.
After graduating from Marquette, Phelps took a job with Legal Aid in Milwaukee. She opened her own practice a year-and-a-half later, sharing office space with Charlotte Bleistein.
“She was 103 when she died five or six years ago,” Phelps said of Bleistein. “She practiced law up until the day she died. She was amazing.”
Phelps was one of the few women practicing law in Milwaukee County at the time. But she said she never really felt much discrimination.
“It may have been because I tried to fit in so much,” Phelps said. “I just tried to do a good job and do the thing that I felt was right.”
Phelps took whatever business walked through the door.
“In that day and age, you didn’t specialize as much as you do now,” Phelps said.
The breadth of Phelps’ practice presented her with opportunities to advance the law.
For instance, Phelps litigated the first herpes-related tort case in Wisconsin, in the mid-1980s. It was the second such case in the nation, Phelps said.
Phelps’ client was a woman who’d been infected by a partner. Phelps sued the man in tort.
“I included his homeowner’s insurance company, because they’d had sex in his house,” Phelps said.
With some help from Michael Hupy, a law school classmate, Phelps convinced a jury to find for her client and award her client approximately $35,000 – a big verdict at the time.
The lawsuit, Phelps said, eventually led insurance companies across the nation to add wording to homeowners’ policies excluding the transmission of communicable disease from coverage.
Phelps also litigated one of the first toxic-shock-syndrome cases in Wisconsin.
Toxic-shock-syndrome is a rare and potentially fatal complication that results from a bacterial infection. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, toxic shock syndrome afflicted hundreds of women across America. The cases were later tied to a brand of tampon manufactured by Procter & Gamble.
Phelps sued Procter & Gamble in federal court; the case settled. She said taking such a complex tort case to federal court as a sole practitioner was easier to do in the 1980s than it is today.
“Even though I felt I was out of my league going up against Procter & Gamble, you still could do it,” Phelps said.
Focus on Family Law
Eventually, Phelps decided to focus on family law. She’d excelled in domestic relations class in law school and handled dozens of divorces during her stint at Legal Aid.
Family law suited her, Phelps said – much to the consternation of some of her fellow lawyers.
“I talked to so many lawyers – especially male lawyers – who would do one divorce case when they got out of law school and they would say ‘I am never going to do another divorce in my life – how can you stand it?’” Phelps said.
She handled nearly 10,000 family law cases over the course of her career, Phelps said, many of them divorces.
“I got so burned out, so many times,” Phelps said.
But she endured.
“It’s just what I was good at, and my clients appreciated me,” Phelps said.
Phelps also served as a judicial court commissioner. The part-time position allowed her to officiate at weddings across Wisconsin, including one during the seventh-inning stretch of a Milwaukee Brewers game.
“That was like my weekend gig,” Phelps said. “It was a nice counterbalance to doing all those divorces during the week.”
Phelps is retired but retains an active law license. She helps a few clients with wills and trusts.
“I got into that because a lot of people would want a will after they got divorced because they wouldn’t want their ex-spouse to be in control of the life insurance money for their kids,” Phelps said.
She enjoys estate planning, Phelps said, because it doesn’t require her to go to court and it’s not adversarial.
Phelps spends much of her free time at the opera, an art form she discovered during her sojourn in Great Britain. During a trip to London, she saw Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” and was hooked.
For 35 years, Phelps had season tickets at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, even after she moved back to Wisconsin. Sometimes, Phelps said, she would fly to New York for a mid-week performance, then hop the red-eye back to Milwaukee so she could appear in court the next morning. She also served on the board of the Florentine Opera Club in Milwaukee for 20 years.
Phelps said her favorite opera is “Tosca.” Written by Giacomo Puccini, “Tosca” is a violent melodrama set in 1800, during Napoleon’s invasion of Italy.
“It’s like a combination of all the art forms,” Phelps said of opera. “It’s the singing, it’s the orchestra … a lot of them have dances. It’s the costumes, it’s the story, all the drama, and the lighting and the sets.”
Phelps also held season tickets of a different sort – basketball for the Marquette Golden Eagles, the U.W.-Milwaukee Panthers, and the Milwaukee Bucks. She enjoyed attending games with her youngest daughter.
“My dream job would have been to be a sports agent or an agent for opera singers,” Phelps said.
‘Only in America’
A story from the mid-1980s nicely illustrates the arc of Phelps’s legal career.
In 1988, the Milwaukee Bar Association honored Phelps as the Lawyer of the Year - Civil Practitioner. Phelps’s father attended the banquet where she was presented with the award.
During her acceptance speech, Phelps said that while she’d grown up on a farm and attended a one-room school, she was practicing law with people who’d attended private prep schools and academies.
“And I said ‘Only in America could we all be together,’ and my dad started crying,” Phelps said. “It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry. He didn’t have a college degree – he was a farmer his whole life.”