Cover Story: Hope & Help
Attorney Paula Saye practices law with compassion and a little tough love
As if it were yesterday, Paula Saye, 62, remembers when she decided she wanted to become a lawyer. It was summertime. She was wearing a yellow dress, walking along Second Ave. North in Billings. She was 17 years old, a single mother, and had just graduated from high school.
Looking back, Paula can’t say exactly what inspired her interest in law, except that it was a knowing she had, deep inside, that she would someday be a lawyer and have the ability to help people. To get experience, she went to Yellowstone County Legal Services and offered to work for free if they would train her.
Then, like it does for any young woman, life happened. Days blended into weeks, which became months, which blended into years. She married, and before she knew it, she had three more children. A difficult divorce followed, and her life settled into a hard, work-a-day hum.
Paula had gotten that job with Yellowstone County Legal Services and later landed a full-time job as a legal secretary for Rob Stephens, a Billings criminal defense attorney. The position grew into a litigation paralegal. In the evenings, she waited tables, tended bar, and dealt poker. She kept her little family fed and eventually remarried, adding another two children to her brood.
To make ends meet, Paula dealt poker late into the night at some of Billings’ roughest bars, including the Empire Bar, the Crystal, and the Eagles Nest. Later, she ran her own card room, Paula’s Poker Palace, in Laurel. Drugs and alcohol flowed through the rooms and across the poker tables every night. It was a dangerous lifestyle she couldn’t shake. It followed her home.
On a cold night in February 2001, Paula’s husband attacked her. Caught up in a drug and alcohol-fueled rage, he shot to kill her. He missed her head by only three inches.
“It wasn’t him,” she says. “He had never been violent with me before. I could see in his eyes, no one was there.”
Her husband had become addicted to methamphetamines and the drug took over his mind and gripped their lives in a strangle hold. While a thousand thoughts swept through her mind on that dark night, one single memory kept rising to the surface – the day when she decided she wanted to be a lawyer. The yellow dress. The summer’s day. The boundless hope she felt 30 years before.
“It made me really stop and take a look at my life and what I had accomplished and I realized that I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted to do,” Saye says.
That night, she recommitted to the dream of her 17-year-old self. Law school became her singular focus.
Paula had already been pecking away at college and was a few classes away from graduating with an accounting degree from Montana State University Billings. Now, getting that degree was more important than ever. She jumped in and finished all her graduation requirements that spring and summer.
By fall, she was accepted at Cooley Law School, a private college in Lansing Michigan with a reputation as one of the toughest law schools in the nation.
To support her family, Paula needed to work right up until the week before classes started, so her daughter and a friend went to Lansing two weeks before her first class began to find Paula an apartment. She arrived with only $2,000 for books, supplies and living expenses.
“On my first day, they dropped me off at the law school with my brown paper bag lunch,” Paula says. “It was a total role reversal.”
The girls picked up work in Lansing and stayed with Paula, helping with rent, food, and expenses so Paula could focus on classes. They all bunked together, and having the girls there helped her stave off her homesickness.
Back home, Paula’s husband committed to a treatment program and was staying sober. He completely turned his life around, and they ended up reconciling. Although they divorced, he wholeheartedly supported her decision to pursue her dream. Their two children, Bailey, 6, and Cole, 8, stayed with him while Paula went to law school.
“I’m extremely close with all my kids and being away from them was the hardest thing I have ever done,” she admits.
After that first year, Brandi and Mary headed back to Billings. To pay her rent and expense, Paula waited tables at a little diner across the alley from the law school. Whenever she could, she sent money to her ex-husband to support the children.
Her homesickness fueled her drive to finish law school as soon as she could. Against the advice of her professors, Paula decided to fast-track her studies.
“I told them if I fail you can say ‘I told you so,’ but you need to at least let me try,” she says.
At Cooley, it is called the suicide track and it took all the focus Paula could muster. From start to finish, most students take 36 months to complete their coursework. Paula finished in just 20 months. She petitioned to take the bar exam a month before she graduated. Again, her professors advised against it, but she convinced them to let her try. Paula passed it on her first attempt.
Of the more than 600 students who enrolled in the fall of 2001, Paula was one of only 140 from her class who graduated. She was 51, and earning her law degree was her dream, finally come true.
All her kids came out to Michigan for the commencement. In her cap and gown, Paula stood on stage and waved her diploma and screamed, “Thank you kids!”
“It was like an out of body experience,” Paula says, remembering the day. “I couldn’t believe it had happened, and I thought, ‘Now what?’”
With a newly-minted law degree, a set of Montana law books, and only $2,000, Paula went right to work and opened up her own practice in 2004. She had just enough money for rent, a desk, and phone system. She didn’t have any extra to pay a receptionist or paralegal staff.
“I was the whole she-bang,” Paula says.
In the beginning, Paula took whatever work came her way, but it wasn’t long before she earned a reputation as a top-notch criminal defense attorney.
Addiction and crime go hand in hand, so almost all of Paula’s clients are dealing with drug offenses or facing charges stemming from drug and alcohol abuse or addiction. She’s never surprised by their stories. Paula has her own experience with addiction, back in her days of working two or three jobs – days at the law office, then waiting tables and dealing poker at night.
“I was doing a lot of cocaine in those days and drinking too much just to keep going,” Paula admits. “It was a miserable, miserable time of my life.”
When she realized that she’d become addicted, Paula made the decision to go to drug and alcohol treatment. Paula’s oldest daughter, Shyla Best, remembers the day her mother went to treatment. Those days were tough, but Shyla knew her mother was doing it for her family. Family always came first with her mother.
“She never gave up. Never. She was at the bottom and never gave up,” Shyla adds. “I think she’s amazing.”
Paula’s experiences in addiction and treatment are some of the darkest times of her life, but they are what give her the compassion and understanding to do her best work.
“I think it helps me understand my clients a lot better, knowing what it takes to get out of it,” she says.
For Paula, a win for her in the courtroom isn’t always a not-guilty verdict. They are very rare. Paula’s wins often happen when she can find a way for her clients to get the help they need. Her goal is to find a way that her clients will have a second chance at life outside or after prison. Still, addiction is a monster, and even with treatment, her clients can end up back in the legal system.
“I get terribly emotionally involved,” she says. “It’s hard because if I didn’t believe in their innocence or believe I could help them in some way, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
Attorney Rob Stephens, who Paula worked for, for almost 30 years, has long admired Paula’s tenacity and perseverance, both qualities that make her a good defense attorney – and a loyal, steadfast friend. The two have had the opportunity to work together on several cases in the past few years. With so much history, they work well together.
“She understands how the system works, and what works for her clients,” he says. “She’s a realist. You have to be a realist to function in that arena.”
Paula is inspired by the few who succeed in pulling themselves out of addiction and the crime that comes with it. Earlier this year, she was contacted by Megan Efta, 32, a woman who was one of the worst drug addicts Paula says she had ever represented.
“I was an IV drug user and I was pretty strung out those days,” Megan says. “I was arrested ten times in two years.”
She stole whatever she could from anyone she could to feed her addiction. In the courts, Paula fought to get her the treatment she needed to turn her life around.
“I was in so much trouble and so desperate for help,” Megan says. “Paula really cared about me, she wasn’t’ just some lawyer. She was there for me.”
It’s been two years since Megan stopped using drugs. She’s now the manager at the restaurant where she works, and helps other addicts by supporting their recovery. Her life has taken a 180-degree turn.
“Paula is incredible,” Megan says. “I thank her so much for my recovery. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Paula takes a tough love approach with her clients. She’s pretty blunt at times, Megan says, but she accepts her clients for who they are and where they are in life. She believes everyone has the capacity to change. When she can help them, like she helped Megan, it makes all her work worthwhile.
“There are just so many who don’t survive the whole drug mess,” Paula says.
These days, Paula does work for clients across the state and has recently relocated her practice to Absarokee. She had always wanted a place in the country. In her dreams, she pictured her little piece of heaven sitting along a stream in the woods. She found it on the outskirts of town on Rosebud Creek.
A sign hangs on her pump house that says Paula’s Paradise. It was made by Shyla’s father, who Paula reconciled with years ago. She’s hoping to start building her dream home later this year.
She’s bursting with pride for her six successful children, she’s crazy for her 17 grandchildren, and now has two great grandchildren to shower with love. They all live in the Billings area and get together often.
Paula also met the love of her life, a cowboy who stole her heart when he asked her to dance at an Absarokee tavern. They’re planning on getting married this month.
“He’s one of those old-time cowboys who opens doors for me, takes my arm when we’re walking, and saddles my horse for me,” she says with the unmistakable smile of a woman in love.
She may be nearing retirement age, but Paula has no plans to retire anytime soon. She’s living her dream and wants to be an inspiration to other women who have put their dreams on hold.
“Never let go of your dreams,” she says. “No matter how long it takes, you can get there from here.”