On the Case

Balancing Act: Claudia Trupp says the legal system and family life have more in common  than most people think.

Balancing Act: Claudia Trupp says the legal system and family life have more in common than most people think.

On a busy morning at the Maple Leaf Diner in Maplewood, Claudia Trupp, all dark hair and warm smile, simultaneously talks and digs into a waffle topped with strawberries. She pauses when a little girl in bright knee-high pink wellies walks in.

“She got those at Tic Tac Toes,” Trupp says, referring to the children’s shoe store up the street.

You’d never guess that Trupp, mother of three girls, has worked for fifteen years as an attorney at the Center for Appellate Litigation. It’s a New York City-based nonprofit law firm that fights on behalf of convicted murderers, rapists, and drug dealers. It’s her job to appeal their convictions.

In Hard Time & Nursery Rhymes: A Mother’s Tales of Law and Disorder (Rodale), Trupp’s recently published memoir, she writes about the work and motherhood.

“My work life is about as gritty as you get. My suburban life is as cushy as you get,” she says. But it’s not a tome on the working mother, or even a self-help book. Instead, it’s a window into Trupp’s life, from what it’s like to visit her clients in jail to making sure her daughters get to school on time. There are heavy doses of how the legal system really works, and how it’s nothing like Law & Order.

”It’s not a work-life balance story,” she says. “It’s just my story.”

Trupp, 42, grew up in Scarsdale, New York, where everyone was a ”doctor, lawyer—or an accountant, if you were a real failure,” she jokes. She was a liberal arts major at the University of Rochester, and was articulate and could write, so law school seemed like a logical step.

She met her husband, now a bankruptcy attorney in Newark, while they were both law students at New York University; they moved to New Jersey sixteen years ago. Her first job out of law school was at Legal Aid, after which she switched to a big corporate firm.

Orderly Conduct: Claudia Trupp at home with her daughters, from left, Sarah, 10; Nina, 6;  and Sophie, 12.

Orderly Conduct: Claudia Trupp at home with her daughters, from left, Sarah, 10; Nina, 6; and Sophie, 12.

In 1997, Trupp was the lead associate on a multimillion-dollar civil rights case, and was to step back into the case following maternity leave after having her first child. A friend at the firm called to warn her, though, that the company had booked blocks of hotel rooms outside of the courthouse where the attorneys would be expected to live while working on the case.

”I had my heart invested in that case, but sometimes you have to admit that you can’t do it all,” she says.

When a former Legal Aid colleague called and offered her a job with a flexible schedule at the Center for Appellate Litigation, she jumped at the chance, even if it meant a steep pay cut.

Trupp started writing Hard Time & Nursery Rhymes in 2006 as a letter to her daughters, now 12, 10, and 6, ”so they would know what my life is like now and not what I remember when they’re 35,” she says.

She didn’t plan on publishing her manuscript until her husband read part of it and encouraged her to give it a go as a memoir.

Good timing. Soon after, Trupp struck up a conversation with the woman next to her on a train. That woman turned out to be Tina Bennett, a well-known literary agent. The two became friends. Trupp didn’t want Bennett to feel obligated to represent the book, but showed her the manuscript anyway. Bennett signed her immediately.

For the most part, Trupp says, her daughters don’t yet realize the extent of what she does. She makes sure they do not read work files she brings home, and she’s waiting for them to ask questions about her day job, instead of forcing it on them.

On September 12 of last year, Trupp’s eldest daughter asked to read the section of Hard Time & Nursery Rhymes about 9/11. Trupp had just gotten off the PATH train at the World Trade Center mall when the first plane hit. She was in her office, next to the site of the North Tower, when the second plane hit, and she was still in her office when the first tower fell. Her daughter found it scary, but appreciated reading exactly what her mother experienced, which Trupp says is the goal of the book.

She hopes readers will see her story as more than an account of a working mother and see that the legal world is full of gray areas rather than stark black and white.

“I want people to see the humanity of what is at stake in the legal system,” Trupp says. When she writes about past cases, she humanizes people who are often demonized. She doesn’t say that all her clients are angels, but they do have rights, and she fights for them, and for cases that can set a precedent about legal rights in general.

”If you don’t understand what you have, you don’t understand what’s being taken away,“ she says.

Trupp’s Life Lessons

Claudia Trupp’s memoir, Hard Time & Nursery Rhymes was originally penned as a letter to her daughters. Here are some of the life lessons Trupp shares on her website (claudiatrupp.com)—good advice for kids and parents alike:
❖ Find it! Do whatever it takes to find what will fill your life with meaning and joy.
❖ Do it! Once you have committed to something, do it. Arrive on time, every time, with your pencils sharpened, ready to rock.
❖ Learn it! Don’t let your day-to-day responsibilities squelch your natural curiosity.
❖ Own it! Don’t be afraid to step up and take a leadership role.
❖ Change it! Just because something has always been done in one particular way, doesn’t mean that’s the only or the best way to do it.
❖ Savor it! It is all too easy to wish your life away. It is important to enjoy the gift of today—don’t squander it worrying about next week.
❖ Appreciate it! Be generous when expressing your gratitude and appreciation for others’ efforts.
❖ Temper it! Figure out at what temperature you thrive, whether pressure sharpens your mind or zaps your strength. Set the thermostat of your life where it best suits you.

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