Frank Stevens Retires

Attorney Frank Stevens, who has practiced law in Gillette for the last 46 years, is set to retire this summer. Among Steven’s accomplishments are an estimated 600-700 adoptions legalized for families.

GILLETTE — What is it that determines a successful legal career? The metric is obviously personal to the lawyer, but for those assessing from the outside, it’s easy to reduce a career into the easily countable.

When prosecutors retire after long careers, perhaps they’re assessed on the number of convictions they secured. In the business and transactions world, perhaps lawyers are assessed on the size of the deals they close or the prominence of the businesses for whom they negotiate. For plaintiffs’ attorneys, success can be seen in the sheer dollar amounts of their wins.

Francis E. Stevens, better known around Gillette and the rest of Wyoming as Frank and a named partner at Stevens, Edwards & Hallock, P.C., will be remembered for a particular type of legal service that’s a bit harder to cleanly count: adoptions.

Stevens is winding down his practice this summer after 46 years, all of which were conducted in Gillette. And sure, a person could try to count it up, but surely any figure would be lacking.

Joe Hallock, another named partner of Stevens’ firm, click-clacked around on his computer, scouring the firm’s files. 

He pulled years seemingly at random: In 2007, he counted 17 adoption files under Stevens’ name; in 2010, it was 16; in 2018, Stevens’ had 18 new adoption cases, and in 2021, there were 15 on record.

Stevens consulted his records and confirmed all of this; he placed his rough estimate at somewhere between 600-700 adoptions, “an average of 15 to 20 a year,” he wrote in an email. 

But it’s not the longevity of his career or shoddy record-keeping that makes the success of his career, with respect to adoptions, somewhat unquantifiable. It’s the nature of adoptions themselves. 

If the children were all that could be counted, then it would be somewhere between 600-700 lives affected, which, let’s face it, is pretty impressive in itself. 

But adoptions touch the lives of so many: the birth parents who weren’t ready for parenthood (and, quite possibly, any future families they might have when they are ready); the adoptive parents, so eager for children of their own; countless grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters; all of them with some small debt owed to Stevens and his efforts.

It was a Friday in June, and Stevens was just hopping off a phone call. As it turns out, it’s a lot of work to retire.

When he was asked to consider the most fundamental question to his nearly half-century of adoption work in Gillette, namely, “Why adoptions?” he gave an answer equal parts “Aw, shucks, I’m just doing my job,” and “Who can even remember at this point?”

“I don’t really recall getting in it,” he said. “When you do general practice in Wyoming, you do a little bit of everything. But I did find soon that it was an enjoyable part of my practice. You feel like you’re doing something very positive for the people involved, whether it’s the birth mom or adoptive parents. You feel like you’re helping people.”

Stevens said that adoption had always been a part of his practice, all the way back to his first year out of law school in 1976.

“Gillette’s always been a young community,” he said.

As a result, young couples often wanted to be families, and oftentimes, young mothers-to-be didn’t feel up to the responsibility of parenthood.

He tried to present adoption as a win-win-win for all parties involved.

“The birth mother benefits by knowing that her child is secure and going to a good home,” Stevens said. “The other side are people who might never have an opportunity to have a child. And the child gets stability and parents.”

It was important to present that holistic view of things, Stevens said, because adoption, no matter whether he represented the birth mother or the adoptive parents, always presents “tough emotional decisions.”

One might wonder why an attorney would specialize in an area of the law so rife with tough emotional decisions, but one has to assume Stevens considers the difficulties surrounding adoptions as better than a possible alternative.

“He’s a strong Christian,” Hallock said of Stevens at one point.

“He sees adoption as a form of ministry,” he said at another.

He’s pro-life, as well. This might not have come up if the Friday that Stevens picked up the phone to chat hadn’t been the same Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

When asked if he thought that the overturning of the case, which, for 50 years, had given women the constitutional right to end a pregnancy before the fetus was old enough to survive outside the mother’s womb, would lead to an increased demand for adoptions and services like his own, Stevens couldn’t say for sure.

“But I see that being a good thing that could come out of it if it did,” he said.

One certainty that comes from 46 years of facilitating adoptions is that a person gets a reputation. 

Hallock affectionately referred to Stevens as the “grandfather of adoptions” in Wyoming, a moniker that Stevens definitely would have dismissed with the wave of a hand had he been around to hear it.

But Hallock may be more right than Stevens would ever concede.

About eight years ago, Courtney and Toby Bennett called Stevens to express their interest in adoption.

They knew to call Stevens because “my mom knew him, that he did adoptions,” Courtney said. “She knew him in a professional capacity, too; she knew he was a good attorney.”

After Stevens gave the Bennetts information about the adoption process, they decided they weren’t ready. But they kept Stevens in mind when, three years later, they’d made up their mind to adopt.

“We contacted him again, and he said he knew of a woman who was thinking about choosing adoption for her unborn child,” Courtney said.

Because remember: If there’s one certainty that comes from working on adoptions so diligently for so long, it’s that a person gets a reputation.

“I did a lot of private adoptions,” Stevens said of the subset of adoptions in which there’s no outside agencies involved, just the birth parents, adoptive parents and their lawyers. “I had a relationship with several doctors and would tell prospective parents to work with their doctors and see if we could step in to help.”

That degree of knowledge in the community helped Stevens facilitate the Bennetts' adoption.

“We met with her at his office about a week later,” Courtney said. “We all hit it off. Then I started going to all the medical appointments with her, and come September, we were parents. I was in the room as he was born. My husband got to give Carter his first bath and his first shots. We got to stay in the hospital that night, and from what I’ve heard from other adoptions, we had the easiest experience. Like, no issues whatsoever. And we are so thankful to Frank.”

With his help, the Bennetts are the loving parents to a little boy Courtney is dreading to see turn 5 years old. They’ve been there since his birth, and all of that can be traced back to a phone call.

But here’s the thing: Stevens wasn’t the Bennetts' attorney. He was the birth mother’s.

This was a common practice for Stevens. As he recounted his long career, he mentioned birth mothers more than just about any other topic, but he was clearly interested in achieving that win-win-win situation for all involved.

“He actually suggested another attorney for us to use,” Courtney said. “And he, Frank’s office and Frank himself, prepared all the paperwork and made sure everything was running smoothly. Because our attorney, while he was great, I think ours was one of the first adoptions he’d ever done.”

Stevens, while modestly saying that he doesn’t think he’ll leave that big of a hole in the local adoption expertise when he retires, simultaneously recognizes that younger and less experienced attorneys don’t know the ropes as well.

“My concern for the practice is that I’ve always approached it with the mindset that you just don’t cut any corners because it’s such a serious issue,” Stevens said. “Another concern is attorneys that do adoptions but not enough of them. Things might fall through the cracks.”

There are many cracks, and no matter an attorney’s years of experience, cracks always pose a threat.

“I’m thankful to say that, in all my years, I’ve never had one challenged or reversed,” he said.

Stevens relayed the fact that he’d never had an adoption reversed with something akin to the verbal equivalent of a sigh of relief; he said it with appropriate pride but far from treating it like a given.

That’s fitting, because it’s no small thing.

“Procedurally, the law has to be followed to a tee,” Hallock said. “The judiciary is very strict, requiring complete compliance, and the consequences are huge. If it’s defective in any way, it can be challenged.”

The risk of a challenge is a huge anxiety for adoptive parents. Nobody wants the emotional fallout of having something as meaningful as an adoption reversed.

Hallock and his wife know of this pain firsthand. They both have a heart for adoption, and they’ve successfully adopted twice, but one time, an adoption arrangement fell apart at the very last minute.

“We took off and flew to California, with a car seat and everything,” Karlene Hallock said. “I was in the labor and delivery room with her. We held him. We named him. We did all this stuff. Then the nurses said, ‘Why don’t you go get a bite to eat for dinner and when you come back, we’ll have the baby all cleaned up.’”

In the time they were gone, everything changed. It wasn’t the result of legal deficiencies; the birth mother’s family intervened, and the adoption wouldn’t happen.

“It was devastating,” Karlene said. “Because it truly felt like a death … Frank was a great sounding board for Joe during that time.”

Stevens had been a sounding board for Joe Hallock before; the Hallocks’ first adoption was an international adoption from South Korea. (Stevens estimates he’s done international adoptions from about 10 different countries, including Congo, Ukraine, Romania and China.)

Karlene said they were navigating blindly, but she remembered how comforting it was that Stevens knew the ins and outs of the Wyoming side of things so well, in addition to the guidance he provided for the international specifics.

“Frank helped guide us through how we had to go through Immigration down in Denver,” she said.

Stevens’ knowledge helped Joe greatly, she said.

“My husband, as a lawyer, he’s — how should I say? — not suspicious, but he’s hesitant,” Karlene said. “He’s always looking for the other shoe to drop.”

When asked about those experiences, Joe Hallock, unaware of what his wife had said, essentially confirmed her assessment.

“I think Frank feels pressure from me in this area of the law,” Hallock said. “I think he feels an obligation as a friend and an attorney.”

Stevens, for his part, said that it’s a special feeling to do adoptions for friends, other attorneys, other professionals that he interacts with and even a sitting judge once.

Whether he ever felt the pressure is hard to say, but as surely as he felt the joy of every successful adoption, he knew the risk if he didn’t check every box and satisfy the requirements of the law perfectly.

“It’s not fun to come home with an empty car seat,” Hallock said. 

Stevens saw to it that, to the extent he was in control, none of his clients ever had to make such a trip.

Retirement is not unlike gray hairs. To paraphrase Proverbs 16:31, gray hairs are evidence of a life well lived, and retirement, one might say, is evidence of the same.

To any who know Frank Stevens personally, his retirement is to be celebrated, the just desserts of more than four decades in the legal trenches. 

But to those who know Frank Stevens by reputation alone, perhaps as the “grandfather of adoptions” in Wyoming, his retirement will be mourned.

He’ll likely no longer put up out-of-state adoptive parents at his own house, as Hallock said he’d done. No longer will he be expected to seek out those win-win-win situations and earn the praise of families he helped who weren’t even his clients, like the Bennetts. No longer will he be expected to take the calls of expectant mothers or helpful doctors and connect them to eagerly awaiting families.

But that’s OK. Through those nearly 50 years in the trenches, he’s fought the good fight.

And though you can’t easily count them, Frank Stevens has stored up more than his fair share of crowns in heaven.

This story was published on July 9, 2022.

 

 
 
 

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