Make Your Own Way To Understand Your Purpose
An Interview with Elizabeth Keeley ’02 by Sara Flayhan ’25
Hounds with Purpose is a space for alumni to share their stories of purpose and vocational engagement beyond their years at Assumption. This blog is created by the Center for Purpose and Vocation and the Career Development and Internship Center (CDIC) to better connect students and alumni through experiential storytelling.
In Fall 2022, students in the SOPHIA Program enrolled in the comparative literature course CLT 255 The Figure of the Seeker, taught by Prof. Esteban Loustaunau. A class assignment asked students to conduct interviews with alumni who had similar academic interests when they were in college. In these interviews, SOPHIA students, committed to discerning their own callings and to seeking a life of purpose, were interested in listening to the life stories of alumni in order to learn from their experiences since their time at Assumption, make new connections, and to find inspiration in their wisdom. We are happy to share these experiences with the blog readers.
Elizabeth (Beth) Keeley ’02 is Partner at Butters Brazilian LLP in Boston. At Assumption, Beth majored in Economics with a minor in Art History. She earned her J.D. from Suffolk University Law School in 2007. Beth served as Chief of the Human Trafficking Division at the Office of the Attorney General for Massachusetts from 2016 through 2022. She is a contributing member of the Women’s Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association.
Sara Flayhan ’25 is a SOPHIA Program Collegian and a member in Assumption’s Pre-Law Program. Her major is in Organizational Communication. As a vocal scholar, she sings in Assumption’s Chorale. Along with singing, she enjoys attending weekly Bible study. Sara looks forward to preparing for law school and a career as a lawyer.
In this interview, Beth talks with Sara about the importance of Assumption’s Core Curriculum in her formation as a person and in helping her develop a sense of curiosity, inquiry, and openness to different ideas as an attorney. Beth emphasizes the importance of making your own way to understand your intentions, purpose, and goals. She closes the interview by emphasizing that vocation is about finding a purpose-filled activity that is particular to each of us and through which to engage with the world; about being honest with ourselves and understanding our strengths and our limitations.
Sara: I’m curious to know why you chose to attend Assumption?
Beth: I chose Assumption because I wanted to be at a small liberal arts college. I didn’t live in New England. I lived in Upstate New York, so coming to New England and visiting Assumption I saw that it was not too big and not too small, it offered a variety of studies, and it made good sense to me. It had a good feeling to it…I also got a Presidential Scholarship, so that made it very appealing to attend as well.
Sara: That’s why I chose to attend Assumption as well. I really liked the small liberal arts feeling…do you remember any courses [from Assumption] that shaped you?
Beth: Yes! I have a lot of good memories about courses. Off the top of my head I remember taking the philosophy class God and the Philosophers. I remember a course where we read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I also remember some great Art History classes that really opened my eyes to that subject matter. I had some great Economics teachers. In particular, a course on economics in relation to the advancement of women really stands in my mind as well. Making sure we met our core required courses in language, philosophy, theology. That was very helpful to ensure exposure to courses across the breath of the College’s offerings and opportunities. I thought that was wonderful, and that is exactly why you go to a liberal arts college for all those valuable offerings and to explore them. I really enjoyed that.
Sara: I took the God and The Philosophers course you were talking about, and it helped me to interpret arguments differently. Do you think that the philosophy and theology requirements have helped you as a lawyer?
Beth: I think they have helped me as a person and in general. Those courses in particular were integral to helping me figure out my approach and to consider ideas and people. So, those courses have absolutely helped me as a lawyer — especially remaining curious, inquiring always, and being open to other ideas.
Sara: When did you realize that going to law school and becoming a lawyer was what you wanted to do?
Beth: I didn’t realize it in college at all. It wasn’t until after college. When I was in college I remember the stress and anxiety of “What happens after college? I have to have it all figured out! What am I going to do? What am I going to be? Where am I going to work?” I was anxious about it all. It’s wonderful to be at that point in your life where so many things are open but it can also bringing anxiety as in “What’s next?” I recall that was hard.
Even my parents thought, “How do you take a liberal arts degree and make a living based on that?,” because that was not their path. I didn’t know either. The things that I was learning and exploring were vibrant in me and I wanted to continue on that path. I also knew that I needed to be independent and able to make a living and be on my own.
I thought I would go figure out what exactly was that I wanted for me but first I would go get a Master’s in Art History, which was actually one of my minors. I majored in Economics but I took a minor in Art History because I started to explore that through the Core Curriculum at Assumption. I really fell in love with art critique and all of that; I was fascinated! So I thought, “That is what I’ll do and this is what will answer my question for what is next!” I had signed up and applied for a graduate program in Art History and had been accepted with a fellowship all lined up. Then after I graduated, I visited a friend, an Assumption friend who was studying abroad in Prague, and we traveled together for a couple of weeks. I spent some time with her going through museums being immersed in art of the ages, through the ages, and art of Eastern Europe. I kept telling myself, “Wait a second, I am not sure this is my career. I mean, I loved this but it didn’t seem right. I knew I wanted to work more with people than with art; objects.” I distinctly remember having what I call my “reverse epiphany.” On the plane ride home I thought “I can’t go get a Master’s in Art History, what am I going to do?” It was really shocking to me at the time.
Then what I did was, to just take some time, which was really good and helpful. I found a job, got a couple roommates and started to work as a program manager for an architecture company. It wasn’t what I set out to do or imagined. However, it allowed me some time to figure out how to live and work, and focus on what I wanted to pursue as a more focused career. I spent about a year and a half reflecting. I had this vague, maybe naïve idea that I wanted to work with people and “do good in the world”, at least try. That’s when I thought about going to law school. Honestly, prior to law school, I had that horrible stereotype of lawyers being antagonistic and not being able to do anything but chase money and people. But I hadn’t really studied or considered it, so once I spent some time thinking about it, and I realized using a law degree can be of good service in the world. That became really appealing to me and decided to apply to law school. I went to Suffolk Law School.
Sara: This is a good segue into a question I was curious to ask inspired by a quote from To Kill A Mockingbird where Atticus Finch the defense attorney says, “Lawyers were kids once.” It portrays lawyers as these big bad antagonistic people, which is a huge misconception. Just this past weekend, I was at a law school fair and all the people I was talking to wanted to do good in the world. Would you say that there are a lot of misconceptions about what lawyers actually do for society?
Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509-1511)
Beth: I would say that there can be people who can use their law degrees and status as a lawyer to be a bully, or acquire more wealth, power, and prestige for themselves…fine for them. However, I do think there should be more to say and consider about lawyers just trying to help people. There are a lot of ways to do good in the world. It doesn’t always have to be the most obvious thing. For many years I was a public service lawyer for the government, advocating for victims and survivors for most of my legal career until just recently. I identified with that as part of my identity. That work obviously felt as I was doing a “public good,” I have realized these past months, as I’ve transitioned into an attorney in private practice, that there is still a lot of good to do. Even though I’m not a public servant, there are people that just need help, and even though I’m getting paid in a different way…it’s still much a needed good for others.
Sara: I love how you describe it as doing good; having a law degree is for the good. I feel that people look at it as “you are going to make a lot of money and are going to be powerful.” But I’m looking more at the part where I can do good for people and for those who need help.
Beth: The idea I have and maybe you share, Sara, is that people need help. There are institutions they need to work with and have to navigate. Lawyers are able to do that on behalf of people and it’s really important. That’s how our society is structured; we need to help people. It’s not straightforward, if you have no legal training, to walk into court and figure out how to get good results for yourself. Even when I was a public interest lawyer there were people who were not lawyers that might assume “Oh, you’re a lawyer you must make a lot of money,” which is not necessarily the point, or true!
People lack understanding about what you are doing; that’s on them. You have to make your own way to understand your intentions, your purposes, and your goals and strive for them. That’s what I have done and tried to do. There is room for those people to try to make as much money as they can, become as powerful as they can. Fine. That’s what they’re going to do, have at it. That was not my goal, but I can’t let those stereotypes infiltrate my mindset and how I’m going to proceed.
Sara: Let’s see here, do you remember your biggest struggle through law school, and what area of law you wanted to practice? Do you remember your biggest challenge in finding your “way”?
Beth: My first year of law school, which Sara you are ahead of the game more than I was thinking about law school now, as I mentioned I had no idea. For me, not having that preparation put me at some sort of a disadvantage in comparison to first-year law students in particular; who were very much tuned into the first-year curriculum: contracts, torts, criminal law, civil procedure, and the focus on case law. I honestly went in like “I guess I’m in law school!” I needed to have more basics that a lot of people did because I had no concept of it and I hadn’t been tuned in. That was something that was hard for me, having to catch up with people in that way.
Sara: I can imagine. Many people say law school is extremely stressful, but if you had the opportunity to go back and give yourself advice, would you? Or would you want to let your path figure itself out like it did?
Beth: I feel that there is so much learning in the process. I probably would have done it the same way. I think the path that I charted into law school made sense for me in my life and I don’t think I could have or would have done it differently. It taught me a lot of things and helped me stay motivated, and I appreciate that.
Sara: You always hear people say “I would give myself this advice,” but sometimes you don’t need to go back. I really like your perspective. If you could, not for yourself, but for a struggling student in their first year of law school, if you could give advice to any 1L student struggling to find their way, what would you say to them?
Beth: I would try to be encouraging with the idea that those concepts and subjects are foundational and important, as is the first year of law school. I guess I would say to ask as many questions and ask for support and help along the way. People want to see you succeed; they want you to flourish. I feel like especially with law school, people are too proud to ask for help and don’t admit when they don’t know or understand something because people don’t want to be considered “not as smart” as the next person. I would say to anyone: ask for help. Everyone’s in the same boat trying to get to the next year, so feel free! Get the help you need so you can be successful.
Sara: Is there something about your career and your life that makes you hopeful or excited for society, or even the next generation?
Beth: Yes, I’ve got to be hopeful and excited because I have three small children. I want to see their lives be full of hope, for them and the rising generations, yours included Sara. What I would point to is this: As citizens of the world, as individuals we can continue to evolve and get better, think deeper, and share that in our communities. I think there is hope in seeing people spread out in that way. Not just to the person that they “have to” but to whom they can in the community.
That is a really good question! It’s inherent for us to want to have hope in ourselves and for future generations. I see the movements from the last couple of years, for inclusiveness and understanding. All of that for me is to say that we need to be more kind in the world. We need to allow for more sharing of perspectives and empathy towards others. There is a lot of hope in that.
Free image (Source: pexels.com)
Sara: That is a great insight. You mentioned that you are a mother of three, and I’ve constantly been told when speaking to lawyers about what it’s like to be in the field of law, “talk to a woman, you want to hear what it’s like to be a woman in law.” What has your experience been like finding your way with being a woman who practices law? Has it affected you at all? Have you embraced being a woman in law?
Beth: As a woman I think that there are more of us women lawyers every year and, hopefully, with each graduating year we will have even more women attorneys, maybe even more than men. If it’s not already there, I bet we will soon. Slowly, we have started to see more women, especially judges. I think there are more advantages in general to seeing more women in the law. I see more compassion and understanding, it’s something I bring when I practice. Am I more empathetic and compassionate because I’m a woman? Maybe! Personally, it’s who I am.
To answer your question about the responsibilities that normally fall on women, especially women that are mothers, that is certainly something I have grappled with. It’s not just a “nine to five” type of work, it can be, but for me it’s never been that way. Having a family and tending to those needs while having to work can be really stressful and straining. I’ve seen along my path fellow female attorneys take part-time positions for that reason. It’s something women in particular juggle more, but I have seen men juggle with it too.
Beth raising awareness about human trafficking in Massachusetts (Source: https://www.nobles.edu/news/survival-stories/)
Sara: As we are wrapping up, do you have any last remarks or thoughts for someone exploring their vocation, or seeking to find their way through their career, or life in general?
Beth: When you talk about vocation, you are trying to find that purpose-filled activity specific to you, and in your engagement with the world around you. For people to really search for that, they have to gain a better understanding of themselves. That’s really hard…you are always exploring and grappling with yourself, and your mind and understanding that in the context of the world. Being honest with yourself and your abilities and your strengths and limitations is important when thinking about what makes sense for you in terms of vocation. To live a life where you feel purpose, if you ask me, is the best way to be motivated to keep going and to keep giving and doing. But you have to figure out inside first before you figure out how to share out to the world with whatever vocation is for you.
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