June 23, 2010 16:42 Age: 4 yrs

A Work in Progress

By: Ginger Pyron

Emory women making strides as legal profession evolves.

Three job-searching years after graduation—having ranked second in a class containing one other woman — Patricia Collins Butler 31L got her foot in the door. Thanks to E. Smythe Gambrell, she had an appointment with Harold M.J. Stephens in the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

That meeting led to a job, literally at ground level. Butler said when she arrived, ready to start, she was taken to a room where stacks of books covered the floor. Her work? To create an antitrust library from the scattered volumes.

Their names are legend. Patricia Collins Butler died last year at age 101, after a long and influential career in Washington, D.C. (see “A Pioneering Spirit,” Summer 2008, and “Blazing a Trail,” Summer 2009). Her story offers a touchstone for women seeking an individual path within law.

An even earlier icon is Eleonore Raoul 20L, the first woman to enroll in Emory University and the first woman to graduate from Emory Law. Before and after receiving her JD, she followed her ideals, passionately championing women’s right to vote—a legend in the making.

Four decades after Raoul’s graduation, Ben F. Johnson Jr. 36C 40L 05H became dean of Emory Law School (see “Opening Doors,” Summer 2009). His son, Ben F. Johnson III 64C, chair of the Emory trustees, recalls one of his father’s frequent remarks: “I’m here to protect the integrity of your aspirations.” In his 24 years as dean, Johnson acted decisively from that platform, helping to spearhead the integration of the University and supporting the education of women lawyers.

Continuing the story. Butler, Raoul and Dean Johnson won admiration as pioneers, making places for women in a profession where, at the time, women didn’t quite belong. Today women lawyers not only belong, they attain high levels of influence. Witness Louise Wells 74c 78L and Mary Jane Augustine 69C 71B 76L, who recently became the first women managing partners in their respective firms: Morris, Manning & Martin LLP in Atlanta and McCarter & English llp in New York.

“Morris, Manning & Martin is transitioning from a first-generation firm into a second-generation, sustainable one,” Wells says. “I’m working diligently on that—and I have a lot of good help here.”

From the beginning, lawyers like Dean Johnson aided women’s advent into the profession. On their own, however, the early women lawyers accomplished something subtle and lasting. Their stories reveal that when a woman enters a profession considered the province of men, she becomes — not only by her abilities, but by her initially conspicuous difference—a likely agent of change. And change, once begun, tends to keep rolling.

Wells is among the dozen Emory Law alumnae who shared their experience of what happens when women in the law both stand out and stand tall.

Where do women stand? Statistics show that in 2009, roughly equal numbers of women and men graduated from law school. In similar percentages, they occupied associate positions. The parity ends there. Women make up 31 percent of U.S. lawyers and 19 percent of partners.

Managing partners or not, alumnae register progress, reporting other successful rises through the ranks. Most say they have no regrets: They speak of current satisfaction, barely mentioning their associate years’ stresses or the difficulties of trying to raise children and billable hours simultaneously.

Such gains stand alongside contrasting perceptions: For every woman with a good experience, there’s a handful whose experience was not so good. I know many women who have left the profession, or who remain but are unhappy. I think women often “step down” to make this career work for them.

But positive change is evident and building. Many firms have efforts in place—women’s initiatives, mentoring programs, flexible options for working mothers—to help stem the attrition of talented women and to make the associate years more manageable.

Making strides. Emory women began making strides in the profession from the moment Raoul completed her law school application. One by one, they covered more distance. Critical mass may have arrived even before Butler lifted the first law book from the stack nearest her shoe.

In intervening years, while the profession has adjusted to accommodate and welcome women as colleagues, women lawyers themselves have continued to evolve. With the perspective born of hitting one’s stride, alumnae observed their inner changes paralleling outer successes. Every woman in the sample group described some new awareness, some release of self-imposed pressures or perceived limitations.

Across the board, alumnae expressed appreciation for the men who helped them along the way—judges during clerkships, mentors at the firm or the court, trusted colleagues. These women see themselves as part of a “collective we,” male and female alike, who together can remove lingering barriers to women’s advancement. From an “insider” perspective, the problems—and also the successes—clearly belong not to any one group, but to all.

“Firms need to do an even better job of retaining and mentoring women, grooming them for leadership and then letting them lead. I think that we—the ‘collective we’ of law firms—need to work harder at that,” Stephanie Shellenback 82L says.

“I’ve learned that your success is not solely about you. Success in the firm’s management won’t be about me, but about all the attorneys here,” Wells says.

The new generation. Alumnae also place themselves in another “collective we:” seasoned attorneys plus younger women, whether recently graduated or upcoming. Mentoring thrives; these women take seriously their responsibility to give back.

The younger women coming along have something to give, too. Shellenback, who co-chairs national recruiting at Drinker Biddle & Reath llp, calls today’s talent pool — women and men — “impressive.”

“Many of these young people undertook work experience after college; they can articulate their career goals, and they’re not afraid to speak up and ask questions. Rather than just letting things happen, they’re asserting affirmative control over their careers,” Shellenback says.

Recent alumnae, products of their generation, may be tending their careers more assertively than their predecessors did. Jennifer Dickinson 01l respects the pioneers, but not necessarily because of their relentless perseverance.

“Here’s the legacy those women have given this new generation: They flat-out changed the rules,” Dickinson says. “They gave us the ability to say, ‘I know that in law, this is the accepted measure of success, but it’s not necessarily what defines me as successful.’”

What’s ahead? The road signs along women’s law trail may have altered. In place of old truisms—Success requires sacrifice. Take what you can get. If you fall, get up and work harder.—perhaps new signs are saying, Define your own success. Ask for what you want. You have many choices.

For women and men entering the law, a new era may be afoot. And Dickinson may be a legend in the making.

“For nine years I’ve been shaping my practice, discovering what’s important in my life. This is one more step: I’m moving to New Zealand—for a while, maybe permanently. I want to keep practicing law, but in a different way. I’m interested in working with indigenous people, and the Maori have unique legal challenges; there are opportunities for me to do really good work,” Dickinson says.

Butler, Raoul, even Dean Johnson might never have imagined such a choice, but all three are probably applauding the spirit that did. When Dickinson sums up her standing, perhaps she voices not just for every woman in law, but for every lawyer, a multilayered truth: “My career is a work in progress.”

Ginger Pyron is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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