CLEARWATER, FLA. — FOUR years ago, when Ann Steffens enrolled in law school, she and her husband still had 10 of their 15 children living at home. Nine of them were teen-agers. Although she worried at first about the multiple demands on her time, her husband, Hank, was enthusiastic about her studies and vowed to help make her dual role possible. ``He was thrilled - `Oh, two incomes at last!''' Mrs. Steffens recalls with a laugh. ``He said he'd do everything at home, and he did. He got the kids very organized, and he did a really good job.''
For her part, the decision to begin a late-blooming career as a lawyer was an exercise in courage. After spending 34 years at home as a wife and mother, Steffens says, ``I was so scared to even call Stetson [University College of Law] about taking the LSAT.''
But her early fears faded, and the academic challenge proved not only possible but rewarding.
Then, at the beginning of Steffens's last semester, her husband became critically ill. Relatives and friends rallied to help the family. Even classmates were ``absolutely marvelous,'' she says.
Three days after Steffens received her law degree in May 1988, her husband died. But later that summer she took the Florida Bar exam. In November she joined the firm of George, Schafer & Payant in Clearwater.
Now, sitting in a leather chair in her office, where two family photographs stand unobtrusively on her desk, Steffens, a small, soft-spoken woman, reflects on the decades she spent at home raising the couple's three children and 12 adopted children - three of them biracial Americans and nine from Korea and the Philippines.
``When I was first at home, other mothers were, too,'' she says. ``But as time went on, everybody got jobs. There was always a feeling it's not enough to be a wife and mother. But I think the lack of parental supervision at home has been responsible for a lot of what's happening to children. They may rebel against every rule you have, but deep down they do want you to set limits. If you're not home, who knows what's going on?''
Yet Steffens understands the complex factors that propel many young mothers into the work force. She also knows the challenges women can face in returning to work after years at home.
``I've been very fortunate in finding jobs,'' Steffens says. ``But many older women coming out of law school have had a terrible time getting jobs. Older men have problems, too, but not as many.
``When you hire younger women, you hire the fact that they're probably going to be a mother in a few years. There's not as much continuity as with an older woman.''
Beyond the advantage of continuity, Steffens finds her years as a mother giving perspective to her legal work. In one case involving a young Filipino who was a victim of battery in the park, the youth's father told Steffens his son was experiencing a lot of prejudice.
``I shared with him that I have Filipino children, too. I felt I could identify with his problems.''
Another time the firm represented a teen-ager who was accused of grand theft. Although he was acquitted, Steffens understood what his family was going through.
``My kids have been in situations where they've been victims of circumstances,'' she says. ``And the boy was under tremendous pressure from his peers. If I hadn't been a mother, I would not realize the importance to teen-agers of their peers' opinions.''
Today the Steffens house is emptying out, with only three children and one grandchild living at home. Steffens is gradually adjusting to life on her own after 37 years of a ``very close'' marriage. She is also relishing her new career. ``I love being a lawyer,'' she says.
But even a law degree offers no protection from the petty indignities of everyday life. Steffens notes with good-humored annoyance that visitors to the office sometimes assume she is a secretary.
Another minor grievance occurred when Steffens needed a new car. One salesman asked, ``Don't you think you should have your husband with you?''
And always there are the pesky vicissitudes of being a single homeowner - the balky appliances, the leaky faucets, the electrical failures that can try the patience of someone who describes herself as ``cerebral'' rather than mechanical.
``My husband could do everything,'' Steffens says with a sigh. ``I can't. Things continue to break. Don't they know there's nobody here to fix them?''