Introduction: There is nothing more inspirational or powerful than watching a woman transform her life to create new opportunities and possibilities for herself. As we approach July 4 and the celebration of our nation’s Independence, join with us in celebrating some of these women as they share their stories – in their own words – of how they transformed their lives and put themselves on the path to greater financial freedom and independence.
Meet Michelle R. Kenney, Attorney at Law, Co-Founder of GAPS Legal PLLC in Sunrise, Florida. My firm specializes in elder law, guardianship and estate planning, and uses a practical approach to deal with “what ifs” with a focus on serving families with special needs.
Tell us about your journey. I’m a divorced single mom. When I was 42, and my daughter was 14, I decided to go back to school to earn my law degree. It took me 4 years. I was living paycheck to paycheck, and went to school part-time at night, while working full time in my day job, and taking care of my teenage daughter. It was a challenge. I firmly believe “if there’s a will, there’s a way.” The only limits on what you can achieve are those in your own head.
What were you doing before that point? I was a certified geriatric care manager and paralegal with experience in aging, mental health, and special needs issues. I worked with the elderly and developmentally disabled individuals to provide social services. My younger brother has Down Syndrome, so I was always sensitive to what’s required in terms of estate planning, and what options are available through the legal system to get the support these families need.
Was it hard to make the decision to go back to school? Yes, but I took it one step at a time. Going back to school is tough. It’s like having kids; there is never a “good” time. I talked about it with an attorney friend before taking the plunge, and she helped me by challenging all my excuses…that my daughter was too young, that I couldn’t afford it. She encouraged me to break it down into steps, and instead of focusing on achieving the final goal, which seemed too far away and too hard to reach, told me to just focus on putting one foot in front of the other and taking it one step at a time. That advice got me started and got me to the finish line.
What were some of the challenges you encountered on your journey? My daughter was 14 when I started back to law school, and was 18 and graduating from high school by the time I graduated with my law degree. Not only was I working, but I was driving her to school, to extra-curricular activities, and cheering at volleyball games. I didn’t want to sacrifice any “mom time” so had to fit everything into my schedule.
It sounds like you may have inspired your daughter to follow in your footsteps. Could be! She studied pre-law in high school, and then earned her Sports Management degree at the University of Florida. She’s now enrolled and starting law school this fall. She may not want to specialize in elder law, like I do, but feels earning her JD is a good stepping stone for any professional career. Her experience won’t be the same as mine was. She’ll be a full-time student, able to take advantage of the entire graduate school experience and extra-curricular opportunities. I did it part-time, working and taking care of my daughter, and worried about paying my mortgage. I wasn’t able to do any of the extra stuff. But I’ve always wanted to set an example for my daughter, to show her what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.
Are you happy with the decisions you made? Yes. Of course I have student debt to pay off, but I’m in the best financial position of my life and believe that working for myself puts me in control of my financial future. That was really important to me. After decades as an employee working for someone else, I wanted to be able to control my own destiny, and become financially self-sufficient thanks to my own hard work. And I did it.
How is your firm affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? We have been virtual for the most part since we started, so we’re still able to help clients while respecting all the safety protocols when in-person meetings are necessary. We’re actually busy now. People have suddenly become very aware of the need to get their estate plan in place.
Who helped you in your journey? I could not have done it without the support of family and friends that encouraged me every step of the way.
Any final advice for someone thinking of making a big investment in their education, like you did? Do not let the fear of all of the “what ifs” stand in the way of your passion or progress. You’ll always be able to come up with a reason to say no, but regret could end up being replaced with tons of possibilities you haven’t even considered if you give it a try. If you won’t invest in yourself, who else will?
Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your story with us!
Read more profiles in our series of inspirational women who transformed their lives in search of financial independence: