Homa Woodrum on Advocating for Elderly and Disabled People

Homa Woodrum has a lot to say about the field of law. She works as an advocacy attorney for Nevada’s Aging and Disability Services Division of the Department of Health and Human Services, advocating on behalf of disabled and elderly people in her state. Woodrum discussed her career in law, life as an immigrant, having a child with food allergies and professional loneliness with She Spends.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Tell me a bit about your background. 
My dad is from Iran and he was raised Shia Muslim. My mom was from West Berlin. We had immigrated to this country when I was about three. I remember being at the immigration offices one time. We were getting fingerprinted, and I noticed that the very tip of the American flag was touching the floor. I learned, as a little American in training, that that flag isn’t supposed to touch the ground, and I wanted to tell the office people. My parents were scared, so they didn’t want to say anything. 

So how does that tie into your decision to pursue law? 
When I was entering law school, I thought I could help people to not be scared like that. With law school, I entered with an idea that immigration law could be for me. The first year was very hard, especially with the bell curve they used for grading. As someone who thought if I work hard, I get the reward, this was hard to understand. I went to a professor and said I couldn’t continue on in law school, but because of scholarship money, they recommended that I stay. So I completed my degree. What I’d tell people is that if you hate law school there’s nothing wrong with you. Being in law school is nothing like being a lawyer. It is intense pressure. It’s a lot to put family and friends through.

And where are you working now? 
I am an advocacy attorney at the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. I had been very focused on elder exploitation when this job came up. They offered a phone interview, but I decided to fly up to Nevada to do the interview. I thought it would show interest. I was going to go for it. I was offered that job. They needed me to start right away. I was living in a Days Inn. Remaking your career in your 30s suddenly like that is hard.

You had a daughter at home at that time, right? 
Yes. I have a daughter with food allergies. She struggled health-wise, and when I had her, it became clear that I couldn’t go back to work. Here’s the whole thing with being a mom: It is a self-identity loss. Yes, you’re caring and nurturing. But you become the point person for this infant. I felt like I had lost an adult part of myself. I was a lawyer! It was my first kid, I had no idea what was normal. I was 25, so I was pretty young. I should have asked for help. I just tried to hunker down and figure it out. Later on we got a diagnosis. She got so much better.

I started a recipe blog and the whole idea was to just keep track of the things that were safe for her to eat. I worried a lot. I found the food allergy community. At one point my husband said we need to change your bar status to inactive. I did it and I felt terrible. Yeah, I’ve been at home with my daughter, but when I went inactive, it meant I couldn’t just go back to it. Soon after, I reactivated. I couldn’t let it go. 

I eventually opened my own firm. I was working with a startup with food allergies. Starting the law firm, I had good business knowledge. I had a technical knowledge in terms of IT and computers. I didn’t have to worry about that because I knew how to do it.

What are some of the challenges of your new job? 
Everyone has their deal breakers. I have a hard time with child abuse cases. I was abused as a child. Somehow it’s different. The funny thing is that disability rights includes children. Adult and elder abuse is something I can direct my anger about abuse in an area that doesn’t trigger me. 

And what about law generally? 
Law is a field that is still very male dominated. I could call a law firm and could be the attorney and get mistaken for a secretary. That highlights that the image of a lawyer in someone’s mind is a later-in-life white man. I remember that they hired a male attorney sometime after me. I was leaving work and there were a bunch of people coming into the office and they were having a poker night. A new attorney is there, but I wasn’t invited. I thought I was on an equal playing field, but I learned that we maybe we're not. 

I think being a lawyer is an incredible responsibility. You have a right to speak on someone else’s behalf. It’s such a privilege, but it’s difficult too. I have been talking to my sister who is also an attorney. We were talking about the concept of professional loneliness. It’s exacerbated in law. You’re so adversarial. You think everyone is looking for a weakness. There’s not a lot of mentorship in the legal community. 

- Alicia McElhaney / She Spends Issue 51

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