Fayetteville attorney and Arkansas Bar president-elect Suzanne Clark has a history of making careful decisions with an eye to the future. It's a habit that stretches back to her teenage years, when she decided not to run for senior class president -- despite having served as president her junior year -- because she didn't want the responsibility of organizing class reunions years down the road.
“[Suzanne] is that stereotypical grandmother who just wants to talk about all of the accomplishments of her five grandchildren … no question, Suzanne is never happier than when she is spending time with one or more of our grandchildren.” — Steve Clark about Suzanne Clark
Suzanne Greichen Clark
“I knew she would be a great attorney. Her training as an engineer provides her logic skills into problem solving and the discipline to master every detail, no matter how small, in the trial of a case. Her knowledge of the law is prolific. I tell people who ask that I am a good attorney. I tell them that Suzanne is a good and great attorney. I let it be known if you need a lawyer from our household, she is the one you need … Suzanne made a complete change in her life at a time when most people are settling in to what for some are the most stable years in their lives. That kind of change can be frightening. Yet, if she was frightened, I never knew it. ”
— Steve Clark
“Not only is she a fine lawyer, but she is a wonderful person. She has great people skills. As talented as she is, she comes across as friendly and approachable. She communicates well. I admire her ability to absorb information quickly and apply her critical thinking skills towards solving the problem, whatever it may be. These are the characteristics that make her a great lawyer … being a lawyer is about solving problems for your clients, and no one does it better than Suzanne. Although she is tenacious in fighting for her clients and her beliefs, she has the maturity to see the approach needed to get the best results. She works tirelessly for her clients and her community.”
— Charles L. Harwell
“She just has such a keen perception of the issues that our business clients are going through because of her extreme knowledge in executive positions. We represent high tech companies that are significantly heavy in mathematics and technology, and her ability to understand and speak on the same terms as these people and these engineers really gives her such a leg up. She has such a great demeanor — a great approach, very kind, but very, very strong.”
— James W. Smith
“Having her as a member of the litigation team was an absolute joy and pleasure. She was way ahead of schedule when it came to being able to turn her loose with a client, and being able to communicate directly with a client about their legal problems. Most of the people we represent are companies who are experienced users of legal services, and they know talented, high-quality communicators right away, most of the time.”
— Russell C. Atchley
“She will spend a year traveling around the country, representing the Arkansas Bar Association. I know how time consuming and how expensive that can be. But it’s so important to her to present this professional, ethical, hard working impression of the Arkansas Bar Association, that she’s willing to take this on as a solo practitioner. She’ll spend a good chunk of her time representing the Bar, and not practicing, but I think her clients will understand the importance of that.”
— Niki Cung
"I plan for disaster," she says, laughing. She's a petite woman, but her laugh is big and genuine. "I always have a plan because something is going to fall apart."
Yet over the years, she has managed to pair these careful decision-making habits with a flair for making audacious moves at just the right moment.
Math and science
Clark originally hails from Newport, Rhode Island, one of four children and the only one who moved away from the East Coast. Engineers populate her immediate and extended family -- her father, brother and most of her uncles are in the profession -- and when Clark showed an acuity for math and science, engineering seemed the natural choice. Clark went to work for National Semiconductor in Danbury, Conn., immediately out of college, the beginning of her steep rise up the chemical engineering ladder. After stops in Massachusetts and California, she eventually landed in Austin, Texas, where she served as vice president of sales and field operations for North America for Millipore, a biosciences company.
Her career climb into the stratosphere was even more remarkable given that, as a woman, she was an anomaly in her field.
"I experienced pretty much every single thing that young working women experience in a male-dominated industry," she says matter-of-factly. "I did that balancing act that most women deal with, where you decide: Is this something that you just laugh off for the sake of just rolling with it? Or is it objectionable enough that you have to be sure that you don't laugh so that they don't think it's OK? Or is it to the point where you have to push back?
"When I got my first regional manager job, I was the first woman who was being put in this job, and there were three other men at my level. One of them said, 'I was kind of irritated that we didn't get to vote on it or anything.' It was sort of like, 'This is clearly going to change the dynamics of our meeting', and he thought he should have a say on whether they should let a woman on the team."
As Clark rose in the ranks, she took pains to do her part to change the culture of her company.
"As you get more senior and get more power in your own right, you can have some impact in terms of how that dynamic is," she says.
Her position as a high-ranking executive meant a punishing work schedule. But she still found time to meet her future husband, Steve Clark -- now president and chief executive of Fayetteville's Chamber of Commerce -- while she was in Austin. Steve says he had heard her speak at various events and asked a mutual friend to get him her phone number. The two had their first lunch in February 1998 and married in November of the same year.
"I realized Suzanne was the person I wanted to marry when I realized that she is the finest person I have ever known," says an obviously smitten Steve Clark. "I clearly married up. People who know us well like her best, and they should. She is much smarter than I am and also a much better person than I am."
Marriage led Suzanne Clark to reconsider her priorities.
"A good chunk of my time was spent on planes, traveling to China and Singapore and Korea," says Clark. "All over the world, really, which is fascinating and wonderful for a while. But after a while, it becomes really wearing , and I just wasn't having as much fun with it anymore. That's when [Steve and I] had a conversation about me kind of blowing it all up and doing something entirely different, which was going to law school."
It was a perfect example of her willingness to leave the sure bet behind and jump into the unknown.
"I will say, without a doubt, if I were not married to Steve Clark, there's not a snowball's chance that I would have done it," she says of the man she calls her biggest cheerleader. "Because I come from a family that is very security-minded and risk-averse. And when you have a good job, you don't just walk away from that. And I had a really, really good job. But I was envious of the fact that in Austin, my husband was involved in local boards and very involved in the community. I couldn't make any kind of commitment to anybody because I never knew where I was going to be."
With Steve's support, she took the leap. The two moved to Florida, where Clark completed her first year in law school while Steve taught. When one of Steve's daughters, Katie Tennant, and her family came to visit the couple, Clark says she and her husband had another revelation.
"We're sitting in our living room, and I look over at the sofa with my husband laying on the couch and [newborn grandson] Jackson laying on his chest, and Steve was just patting him," remembers Clark. "After they left, he was depressed for two weeks. I realized I wasn't going to law school just because I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted a lifestyle change. I wanted to be able to be involved in my community. I wanted to be involved with our grandchildren." Katie and her family were moving to Fayetteville, where Steve's daughter Donna and her children already lived. The couple decided to join the rest of the family in Northwest Arkansas.
Clark transferred to the University of Arkansas School of Law, where she graduated summa cum laude and as editor-in-chief of the Law Review. She was hired immediately by Kutak Rock, one of the largest law firms in the state.
Clark was drawn to litigation from the start. Colleagues say her corporate experience made her a natural in the courtroom.
"She wanted to go to court, and she wanted to try cases," says Russell C. Atchley, managing partner for the litigation group at Kutak Rock. "Her communication skills were just off the chart -- our clients loved talking to her, and they loved the way she communicated. They loved her down-to-earth manner and her ability to explain complex, difficult subjects."
After just four years at Kutak Rock, Clark was ready to take yet another risk -- to open her own law firm. She was prepared to struggle through a couple of lean years at first, but her reputation as a crack litigator allowed her to hit the ground running.
"About the time that Suzanne started practicing, we had an issue with a covenant and the need to enforce it, so I called Suzanne," says James W. Smith, who, along with his law partner, Rebecca Hurst, had recently started their own firm and were on the hunt for a litigator. "The law firm on the other side was one of the larger law firms, and they were taking an aggressive stance. Suzanne came in extremely prepared and won the case. It was a short trial because of the work that she had done.
"I think a good reason for the success of mine and Rebecca's law firm to this day is a result of Suzanne's approach and her help with us on our clients. ... We've always brought her in, and our clients have uniformly been pleased with her."
"I've told people that Suzanne is one of the bravest people I know," says Niki Cung, a partner at Kutak Rock and colleague and friend of Clark's. "She left Kutak Rock, which at the time was the only national law firm in Northwest Arkansas. She was on the path to partnership, the whole bit, but she chose to leave and start her own firm. It was a huge business decision. I think the fact that she had previously been in the business world allowed her the confidence and also the judgment to make the jump that she did and allowed her to be the success that she is at this point. Not just from a legal standpoint, but from a business standpoint. And that's a whole different level of business savvy that you have to have, on top of legal skills."
In December, Clark received confirmation that her reputation as a lawyer had spread outside the boundaries of Northwest Arkansas when her peers voted to have her become the Arkansas Bar Association president-elect. Northwest Arkansas lawyer Charles L. Harwell nominated Clark for the position. He met her when she was elected to the Arkansas Bar Association House of Delegates and was so impressed by her skills and leadership abilities that he encouraged her to run for the Board of Governors of the Arkansas Board. When the time came to nominate an individual for the position of Bar president, Harwell once again thought of Clark.
"To me, it was apparent that she had the skills, temperament and drive to successfully lead the Arkansas Bar Association," Harwell says. "She will be a great president.
"We are most fortunate that [Clark] landed here, because she was going to be successful wherever she decided to practice law or in whatever field she chose to use her law degree. Not only is she a fine lawyer, but she is a wonderful person."
Clark will serve as president-elect for a year before being sworn in as president. She says that she expects that a ballot measure scheduled for the 2018 election will take much of her attention during her tenure. Titled the "Cap on Attorney's Fee and Damages Awards in Lawsuits" Amendment, the measure would limit attorney's fees and punitive damage awards -- as well as "authorize the state legislature, by a three-fifths vote, to amend or repeal court rules regarding pleading, practice or procedure prescribed by the Arkansas Supreme Court or adopt rules under its own initiative," according to Ballotpedia. It's this last part that Clark says concerns her.
"It would take the rule-making authority from the Arkansas Supreme Court and put it with the legislature," says Clark. "It's a really big deal for us. I consider it, essentially, a huge issue from a separation of powers perspective, where the legislature is literally trying to undercut the judicial branch in terms of their authority, and the idea that they are supposed to be a separate and co-equal branch of the three sections of our government.
"It's packaged as a constitutional amendment that says it's about limiting contingency fees for lawyers. Who's going to be against that? It will be a very popular thing in terms of how to promote that. ... But it's an attack on the judiciary, as far as I'm concerned. And so for the Arkansas Bar, representing the legal community, I think that's going to be a big focus. We're going to be trying to organize some speaker bureaus to try and educate folks about what's really behind this."
With this new responsibility, Clark's work schedule will surely accelerate. But, unlike her corporate years, her career won't consume her life -- there are too many things, much more important, outside of work. Once upon a time, she enviously watched Steve's community involvement in Austin, but now she's the one involved in the community, serving on boards of organizations like the Fayetteville Public Library and Decision Point, a substance abuse treatment facility in Bentonville.
But first, always first, are the grandchildren.
"There is nothing that comes [before] my children -- I don't care if it's the deal of the century, she is going to always pick my children first," says Steve Clark's daughter, Katie Tennant, who calls Clark her "bonus mom." "She loves unconditionally, and you want her on your side, because it feels good to be loved by her."
"I did not give birth. I don't have children of my own," says Clark. "So my grandchildren are it, and that's the driver for a lot of what makes me tick. It's a huge part of what Steve and I focus on. We are super busy folks -- we sit down with our calendars and kind of work it out. But we also have plugged into our calendars all of the basketball games, all of the dance recitals, all of that. That's really what we try to focus on. We are very aware that we're at a place in life where that means more, every single day. Every single day."
NAN Profiles on 02/04/2018
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