Sarah Stark Oldham is today one of Connecticut's leading divorce attorneys, but that distinction should not obscure a life story - of persistence and a desire for excellence - that exemplifies the journey of many professional women of her generation. True, Oldham ("It's a tip-off if you don't call me Sally") has been a practicing divorce lawyer for nearly 25 years. But her drive - switching careers in her 30s, attending law school at night while raising two children, and then plunging into the ultra-competitive thicket of complex divorce litigation - sets her apart from nearly all of her peers. Today she and Arnold Rutkin run one of the region's most respected boutique firms dedicated to divorce law. "Sally has a great story, no question about it," says Rutkin. Growing up in Garden City, Long Island, Oldham had a pedigree for the profession from the start: Her grandfather was a judge, her father a partner at the renowned Milbank, Tweed firm. (Her brother Richard Stark is a partner today at an elite Manhattan-based firm.) But heading off to college, at age 17, she married her high school sweetheart before she was 20 ("People say I was a late bloomer, but with two children in my early 20s, I felt more like an early bloomer") and pursued a master's degree in psychology. For ten years she worked as a school psychologist in Fairfield County schools and in private practice. But as time passed, divorced with small children, she felt she had to push herself - "It's no secret: I wanted to help people, to make a better living, and to gain some independence." Attending law school while continuing her counseling job, "there were nights I had to choose between studying case law or writing up a psychological report, all the while running the house and paying the mortgage. I look back on it now and wonder how I did it." When she joined the prominent firm of Day, Berry & Howard (now Day Pitney LLP) her better-paying but demanding job "all seemed less stressful." (It helped that her teen-age daughter had obtained her driver's license, she adds.) In a few years, Oldham had already gained some trial experience, and, with her background in mental health, gravitated to the powerfully emotional field of divorce law. Of course large firms tend to marginalize divorce law, and after six years Oldham knew the practice was her future; "I wanted to be the best divorce lawyer I could possibly be."
In the mid 90s she joined Rutkin - a longtime matrimonial trial lawyer, and an intellectual leader of the divorce bar - a risky leap from her comfortable, large-firm partner track. Rutkin was known as an intense, sharp-elbowed litigator - "I knew that if it didn't work out I would've spent some time with the best." But the professional alchemy did work - Rutkin and Oldham have grown into a formidable team in high-stakes divorce cases, of which there's little shortage in affluent Fairfield County. In addition, they are exceptional courtroom strategists; "We understand the balance of power in relationships, and how that plays out in every venue." Their practice today has six lawyers, including partner David W. Griffin. After eight years of working together, Rutkin and Oldham evolved further; in 2005 they wed, selling their houses and buying one together. As for Oldham today, her graceful and self-possessed manner suggests she never doubted her course. And through all the chapter changes of her life, Oldham managed to bestow high expectations on her children: Her 38-year-old son (Williams College, Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business) is today a partner in a Boston consulting firm, and 40-year-old daughter (Yale, Harvard Law) is now counsel to Princeton University. ("My kids are terrific. I have been very lucky," she says of her kids.) She and Rutkin speak proudly of their 11 grandchildren, and they enjoy travel. For years Oldham was a licensed pilot; she recalls one of her first unassisted landings: "The instructor asked me: Are you coming in too low or too high? I had no idea. And he said, ‘When you're not sure, the worst thing a pilot can do is nothing. If you act and you are wrong, you'll be able to tell and change course.' I often think, well, that's how I've approached my life."