John Staley did not have a typical midlife crisis.
The hard-working lawyer passed right over a shiny red sports car in favor of a three-month stint cleaning laundry on a ship bound for China.
"I was in my early 40's and had a successful practice, a family and a successful marriage," Staley recalled. "I needed to go away and think about where I was in life and what I was doing."
Staley took a three-month sabbatical from the daily grind of his law practice and accepted a friend's offer to hit the high seas.
"I got this offer from a friend of mine to join the Merchant Marines for three months and become an able-bodied seaman on a ship that went to China," he said. "He had a contract with them to run their laundry room, so I did laundry all the way to China and back."
Staley joked that he needed to figure out what he wanted to do when he grew up.
"You go out on a ship that's 3,000 miles out at ocean, it gives you a lot of time to contemplate," he said of his adventure. "I came back much happier. None of my friends would agree I'm well adjusted, but I think I was well adjusted."
Staley set sail in 1984 at the height of his career. The growing Staley Jobson family law practice had recently moved to a bigger location when Staley stepped away for the three-month breather.
While the stint as a seaman is unusual by anyone's standards, it is rather typical for Staley. The Ohio native tends to gravitate toward the road less traveled.
Staley, 71, is from a small town, the oldest of seven children born to an electrician father and a busy stay-at-home mom. When he graduated from high school, his aunt suggested he attend California State University, Fresno, in her hometown.
"She said, 'You can come live with me, and I'll support you through college,' so that's how I got to California," Staley said. "I paid for college, but she supported me."
Staley finished his studies in the summer of 1965, earning a bachelor's degree in European and American history.
"I started off as a chemistry major because I wanted to be a nuclear chemist and an astronaut," he said. "But after I flunked calculus, I decided I probably wasn't going to be that good of a scientist. I was starting my senior year. I was running out of money. The only way I could graduate by the end of the year was to take all of these courses in history."
After graduation, Staley landed a job as "a social worker in Fresno County out with the grape pickers. It was interesting because I didn't speak a word of Spanish. That lasted six months until I got drafted."
He jokes that he was "invited" into the Army in February 1966 in the midst of the Vietnam War. After basic training, he was stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland. Since he took Russian in college, he was assigned to military intelligence, specifically prisoner interrogation.
"In that capacity, I became Radar O'Reilly," he said of the lovable company clerk from the book, movie and hit TV show M*A*S*H. "We were a little short of prisoners of war in Maryland."
Staley married his wife, Sue Ann, a fellow Fresno State graduate, while on a three-day pass in June 1967.
"We didn't live together for the next two years," he said. "Maybe that's the secret of a long marriage."
Sue Ann moved to Livermore, while Staley returned to Maryland. As company clerk, he had plenty of time to read Army regulations.
"I learned you could get out (of the military) three months early for graduate school, so I applied to graduate school," he recalled.
Staley started graduate school at California State University, Hayward in January 1968, then the couple took the summer off to travel to Europe on $10 a day. They ended up at a friend's house in Czechoslovakia when the Russians invaded that country. They got out safely and returned to the United States, where he worked in a United Nations program teaching people how to take a world census of agriculture.
The couple stayed in Washington, D.C., for a year before returning to Livermore. Staley enrolled at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and graduated in three years.
"I got offers, all of them out of the area, and my wife didn't want to leave, so I opened my own practice right out of law school," he said.
The rest, as they say, is history. Staley opted to specialize in family law, which he describes as "the formation and deformation of family. Family law would encompass divorce, prenuptials, post nuptials, adoptions, guardianships and stepchildren adoptions."
Staley joked that at the time, family law "was the proctology of law. Most lawyers didn't want to do it. Remember, I'm the new kid on the block with no patrons, nobody feeding me business and no family connections. But it paid the bills. Slowly, (family law) became more professional."
In the late 1970s, the legal profession evolved so that attorneys began choosing areas of specialization. Staley helped found the Association of Certified Family Law Specialists, which grew to be a statewide organization.
"I enjoy the practice of family law," he said. "It is one of the few areas that has such a wide range of both issues and the application of the law."
The practice grew, ultimately moving to Pleasanton in 1984. Staley and Sue Ann followed in 1986, building a home in east Pleasanton.
"We continued to grow," he said of his firm. "At one point, we had 15 or 16 lawyers. The only part of the firm that was really profitable was the family law part. Most attorneys didn't really want to practice family law, so we were really, really busy. At the height of the practice, we had six attorneys doing family law."
Along the way, Staley served on the Livermore city council with four years as vice mayor and helped found the Bank of Livermore, now U.S. Bank. He was involved with two companies, Michael's Premier Roses and Xscribe, which were eventually sold.
In 2000, the large firm moved to a 5,000-square-foot office near Stoneridge mall. Eventually, Staley and his partner began scaling back their practice and moved to a smaller office earlier this year.
"My partner, Bruce, and I had been partners for 30 years," he explained. "The practice was downsizing. We looked around and chose this spot (in Hacienda). Along the way, my son became a financial planner, and he shares space with us here."
While business is slower these days, by choice, Staley has no plans to retire.
"I truly enjoy what I do," he said. "That's one of the reasons I don't want to quit. It harkens back to being a social worker. It's dealing with real people who generally have intensely personal and emotional problems (while) going through the breakup of their family."
Staley and his wife own a home in Tahoe, where they enjoy skiing, though not quite as often as in the past. He has cut back on his annual scuba diving trips with a friend, but still enjoys playing handball regularly.
He spends time with his mother and aunt, both in their early 90s, and equally enjoys his time with two grandsons and his grown sons, Ian and Eric.
"I'm going to work, travel, drink good wine, spend time with my grandkids and spend time with family," Staley said. "I might need another sabbatical to help decide what to do when I retire."
Learn more about the Staley Jobson family law firm at staleyjobson.com .
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