Roxanne Conlin slammed on the brakes when construction on the MacVicar Freeway suddenly loomed ahead, veered across the median and swerved through three lanes of oncoming traffic on her way to work last week.
Yes, she was terrified. But the first thought that flashed through her mind was, "I'm too busy to die."
"I had so much to do that day that dying would really mess it up," she said.
Since running for governor in 1982, Conlin, 44, has kept most days busy while building a national reputation for herself as a partner in the Des Moines law firm of Galligan and Conlin.
She recently was named one of the nation's top 10 trial lawyers by the National Law Journal, which profiled her in a special annual issue. She was recognized for her work on a Cedar Rapids lawsuit that broke new legal ground when Conlin convinced a jury that a convenience store should be liable for selling beer to a customer who already was drunk.
She also devotes many hours to the 70,000-member Association of Trial Lawyers of America and was rewarded last summer when her peers elected her parliamentarian. It is the first of several steps that usually lead to the presidency.
Conlin is the first woman to be elected to an office in the association. Past presidents of the group say they have no doubt she will become its first female president in a few years.
After you've been president and invested two years of your life, blood and sweat, you get very fussy about who is going to be president in coming years." said Robert Habush, a Milwaukee lawyer who was the organization's president in 1986-87.
"I have no qualms at all about Roxanne being president. She's a leader, which is not a characteristic many people have. She is politically astute, and she's an excellent lawyer."
Eugene I. Pavalon, a Chicago lawyer who was president of the association last year, said he was not surprised that Conlin was recognized as one of the nation's premier trial lawyers. "I have considered her for some time to be among the very top echelons of our field," Pavalon said,
Her election as an officer of the lawyers' association was not because she is a woman, he said. "She's there because she's very capable and competent."
To unwind from her whirlwind of activities, Conlin enjoys curling up with a good television program. "The Cosby Show," "Designing Women," "L.A. Law" and "Perfect Strangers" are her favorites. She knits baby clothes for her 9-month-old grandson, Devin, her first grandchild, while she watches TV.
"An Escape From My Life"
"It's an escape from my life and my job," Conlin says.
Conlin and her husband, James Conlin, also have a tradition of weekly dates on Friday nights. They often go to "mindless movies, never one with a plot or one that requires any concentration," James Conlin said. They make a point of traveling for long weekends to places such as Lake Tahoe or New York City, where they enjoy seeing plays.
They make a point of it because it is not uncommon for Roxanne Conlin to be gone for two weeks at a time or to fly to four cities in the space of a day or two.
"I know where she is by looking at the travel itinerary on the refrigerator," said James Conlin, who owns Equity Brokers Corp., a Des Moines real estate agency.
The Conlin's celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary this month. They married after a two-week courtship.
Their four grown children have left the nest empty. But the Conlin's have four cats and a giant white Pyrenees dog named Susan B. Anthony Conlin. Always an ardent feminist, Conlin displays a sign in her office that reads, "The Best Man for the Job is a Woman."
She considered running for attorney general in the 1990 election, but has decided not to. Attorney General Thomas J. Miller, a fellow Democrat, is running for governor, so that leaves his job open.
Conlin said her law firm recently has taken a personal-Injury case on behalf of 300 Iowans who she says have been poisoned by asbestos on the job, and she felt a responsibility to finish that case.
Her decision could spell the end of her political life, she said. A well-worn stuffed donkey, the Democratic Party's mascot, sits on a shelf behind her chair, and political cartoons depicting her campaign for governor adorn her office walls - reminders of a fast-paced political life in the not-so-distant past.
"Timing in politics is everything." Conlin said. "I hope I will know when the time is right. But it may never come again, and that makes me very sad. There are all kinds of things that are not in your control,"
Her husband is not as melancholy as Conlin is about the possibility of not returning to public life. He said it is "absolutely marvelous not to be living in a fish bowl" and would be happy to continue living their relatively private life.
"I don't know how to put this delicately. But I think she's outgrown the job, both attorney general and governor," James Conlin said. "She's creating quite an opportunity for herself nationally in the field of law. She has some very deep concerns about setting standards in the law for certain types of victims nationally, and she is making real contributions in that, particularly rape victims and personal-injury victims."
William Knapp, chairman of Iowa Realty Co. and a Democratic Party activist, said: "She's still pretty young. I think she's smart in what she's doing. There's a time to make money, and she's in her most productive years."
Making a Difference
Conlin has said she dreamed of being governor so she could make a difference. Now, she says, she's making a different sort of difference as a trial lawyer by representing people who need legal help and often cannot afford it
"I only take cases in which I believe," she said. "I hope some of my work will result in doctors catching cancer sooner by not ignoring women who say they have a lump in their breast. I hope farm machinery will be made safer because of some farmers that I represent that have no arms because they were twisted off. What trial law is all about is holding people accountable for not acting reasonably."
Her strong convictions and principles make her important to her law firm, said her partner. Michael J. Galligan.
"Basically, I think the important thing about having her as a partner is her value system," he said. "People come first with her. Trial lawyers ought not to think only about themselves, and Roxanne helps us remember the public-service aspect of it,
"She is not the kind of person who shoves her opinion on you. She is a person of extremely high principles, and some people don't like people with high principles. Roxanne knows what she thinks is right and what is wrong. I don't want her in the firm because of her name or because she ran for governor I want her because she's a heck of a good lawyer'
In her effort to help victims of rape and personal injury, Conlin is writing a book. "Rape, Robbery and Murder What Civil Trial Lawyers Can Do to Help the Victims of Crime." It will be published by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Co. at the end of the year. She hopes lawyers will use it as a handbook.
Kicking the Habit
As she speaks, she sucks nervously on hard candy and chews gum, trying to relieve herself of the pangs of desire for a cigarette. She started smoking at age 14 and quit her two-pack-a-day habit three months ago. She always told herself if she ever noticed a symptom of problems from smoking, she would quit. When she huffed and puffed through the jitterbug to "Johnny B. Goode" at a campaign fund-raising event for her friend, Elaine Szymoniak, she decided her smoking days were over
Conlin's law office is in The Plaza, a downtown Des Moines condominium and office tower. Shelves were installed in the walls behind her desk to showcase her beloved African violets. Half of the room has lawyerly leather chairs and a big cherry desk, while the other half sports pink floral chairs and a feminine powder-blue sofa.
Conlin's recent representation of former Des Moines police officer Deborah Lynch in a sexual-discrimination complaint against the city brought her much attention. In December, District Judge Michael J. Streit ordered the city to pay Lynch $10,000 in compensation and Conlin's legal fees, which were $158,000. About $115,000 will go directly to her, she said.
Des Moines Mayor John "Pat" Dorrian said taxpayers should not have to pay the bill, which is about $10,000 more than the combined salary of City Attorney Ivan Webber, his assistant and a police sergeant who worked on the case. The City Council appealed the matter to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Conlin said she spent about 800 hours on the case and spent $25,000 of her law firm's money on expenses. She the high legal fees were unnecessary because she tried repeatedly to settle the case with the city when her fees were about $3,000, and she would have settled the case for the $10,000 Lynch eventually got.
"I was appalled by the fees, too. But by God, I earned it," Conlin said.
"It's people like Debbie Lynch that my new career is all about. People like her need their rights protected but they can't afford to pay for it. It makes me feel so good that I could help her."