An Unexpected Journey
Raised in Warden, Washington, Sharla Smith Hales’s (BA ’82, JD ’86) parents taught her to work hard and play hard, love the Book of Mormon, and do what is right. And they taught her to love her family—unconditionally and without bounds. So when Hales’s parents died unexpectedly in a tragic plane accident when she was only twenty-one, she was devastated, but had faith in the eternal nature of love that her parents had taught her. A junior at BYU at the time, Hales withdrew from school and returned home to be with her five younger siblings, who ranged in age from two to seventeen. Then, for the next two years, the younger children went to live with an aunt and uncle while Hales finished her undergraduate degree, started at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, and got married.
The adjustment proved too difficult for the Smith children, and eventually all decided that the best thing was for Hales and her new husband, who was also in law school, to assume guardianship of the children. Hales says, “I remember that time as being full of relief and joy. The constant worry about their well-being was now something I could act on hourly.” Even knowing it was the best choice for their family, the new situation took a lot of love, hard work, and patience. Hales and her husband learned to prioritize their family bond over everything else. She says, “Those first months . . . were full of a lot of game playing, laughing, watching videos snuggled up and eating on paper plates because we’d rather do things than wash dishes.”
Given their new, ready-made family, the Haleses had quite a different experience than their fellow law students. Though blessed to have support from the law school’s faculty and staff,” they did have to pass on some opportunities. Turning down an invitation to be a part of the law review, opting out of study groups, and taking an extra year to graduate were just a few of the necessary adjustments. But it was what they wanted. Hales says, “I wanted to do for them as close to what our parents would have done as I could. So, it was love not only for siblings but also for parents and feeling a sense of . . . responsibility. Love and responsibility going both ways, to the parents and to the siblings.”
Even titles like “parents” and “siblings” were tricky. Hales says, “We sometimes called ourselves their ‘people,’ and they did the same. For instance, if one of their friends wanted to plan an activity, the kids would say: ‘I’ll have my people get with your people.’” But learning to embrace the unique dynamic of their family was more joyful than stressful. Hales remembers, “We found ourselves in funny situations sometimes, like going to high school back-to-school night in our mid-twenties. We laughed a lot about the looks we got.”
Hales stresses how important her husband’s support was, then and now. She says, modestly, “It was not extraordinary for me to love and want to take care of my siblings. It was extraordinary for my husband. He at every moment was fully supportive of my dedication to my siblings and he was fully engaged in parenting them. It was amazing to me then and is even more so now.”
Instead of taking the bar directly after they graduated from the law school in ’86, the Hales family (including a new baby of their own) took a six week trip around the US. They used this time to bond and make memories. Hales says, “[We] loved exploring these historic places with our kids, and it was just a great, great experience.” After the trip the family settled down in Nevada, where they’ve been ever since. Over the next decade they added four children to the family, three boys and then a girl. As one child grew up and left home, another was born. The Hales sought for their home to be a place full of love.
Once they arrived in Nevada, the Hales family hit the ground running. For many years, Hales worked at home, taking care of her growing family. During this time, her interest in education blossomed. She volunteered in her kids’ schools and eventually served on the Douglas County School District’s board of trustees for twelve years, where her service was invaluable. Hales also made use of her law degree doing contract legal work. For Hales, however, the highlights of those years were the kids’ basketball games, dance recitals, and debate team events (no surprise with two lawyers for parents).
Eventually, Hales decided to begin a law practice. This was another big transition that took teamwork, simplification, and getting a little less sleep. To find balance, Hales applied the “good, better, best” principles to all aspects of her life. “When I was teaching seminary,” she shares, “I would work hard on the core messages. I wouldn't worry about decorating the room.” She cooked simpler meals, and decided not to be bothered if her house wasn’t kept perfectly. “I don't know that I'm any different than all the other wonderful moms who juggle a lot of things and make it work,” Hales says, “I looked around at the women I admired most, a common theme was their households were not perfect.” Hales says what was most helpful was, “having a family where everyone is pulling on the oars together.” The family learned to communicate, understand, and be patient with one another, and that made all the difference at home.
There was also a learning curve at work. Hales says that good mentors helped her navigate the shift back to working in her field. Hales adds that she also had to be willing to “jump in with both feet and . . . not be afraid to just embrace the hard work; embrace that [I wasn’t going] to know everything or do everything exactly right.” After six months, Hales fell into the swing of things, and in a few years was “on top of her game.” Overall, it was a rewarding experience. Hales says, “After having a long phase in life where I was mostly concerned about being a mom, to have some intellectual challenge was very rewarding and enjoyable.”
Hales is taking her experience and helping others through the Nevada State Bar Association mentoring program. Though she wasn’t able to make many connections in law school (spending most of her discretionary time with her new family), she fosters professional relationships now through mentoring. Hales makes sure to provide opportunities for her mentees to learn through experience. “I have approached a couple of young attorneys and said, ‘Hey, do you want to research this issue for me or draft this document?’ And then I brief them on what’s involved and they can sort of dip their toe in the water that way . . . and do it in a setting where it’s not high stakes.”
If there is one lesson to learn from Sharla Hales’s life so far, it’s perspective. An avid biker, Hales shares the experience of riding a favorite loop near her home in Nevada. Riding the loop in an eastward direction, one finds very little vegetation, dilapidated buildings, and “lots of piles of junk.” If Hales rides the loop in a westward direction, however, “the vista includes a river, farms, and barns, all with a really beautiful majestic mountain backdrop.” Perspective makes all the difference. Through the death of her parents, raising her siblings and children, putting a law career on hold, and then jumping back into it after 20 years, Hales’s willingness to work hard, do what is right, and love those around her has given her a perspective of joy. Her advice? “Your journey through life and career will have unexpected turns. You can’t see the end—or even the middle—from the beginning. But every turn will have wonderful views when you have love of God and love of your neighbor. And you will have a scenic, beautiful ride.”