In Their Own WordsBy: Ginger Pyron
Chilton Varner 76L
Partner and celebrated rainmaker, King & Spalding LLP, Atlanta; the firm’s second woman partner and its first woman partner in litigation
Then. Emory, earlier than most law schools, was quite accepting of women. I’d been the secretary for my husband’s law practice; I was in my 30s, with a young child. And there was nothing unusual about me in my class. But in the profession, a woman still stood out as an oddity. At King & Spalding, while I had every opportunity to learn, I was acutely conscious that the quality of my work would shape people’s opinions of women who came later. Some of the demands I put on myself were probably greater than they needed to be.
Now. Talking through challenging problems with colleagues remains the best way to ensure that you’ve made the best decision. It makes me a better lawyer. I’ve had the good fortune to be in a practice where my partners are my best friends, and I value those relationships more than anything.
Brenda Hill Cole 77L
Judge, State Court of Fulton County, Ga.; appointed 1998 and elected for three subsequent terms
Then. Being a wife and mother—and 10 years older than most first-year law students—distracted me from the question of how I was being regarded as a woman. I treated law school as a full-time job. I would tape my lectures and play them in the car, or while doing laundry, or when the kids were asleep. Although I was interested in working at a firm, I wanted to have time with my children. I was very happy to get the offer for my first position at the Attorney General’s Office.
Now. I keep my gavel in the drawer, and for 11 years I’ve never had to pull it out — even though sometimes my voice has to get a little sterner. When interns come through my office, I make sure they know they can come to me for advice, or even a shoulder to cry on. It’s tough to have a career in law, but it is really worth doing.
Louise Wells 74C 78L
Managing partner, Morris, Manning & Martin LLP, Atlanta; the firm’s first woman attorney and first managing partner, unanimously elected
Then. When I was hired, firms weren’t looking for women; there wasn’t much attention to diversity. And I did experience intense pressure to succeed. But my firm treated me like any of the other attorneys; we all encouraged each other. The firm was highly ambitious, yet also cooperative and entrepreneurial. After six months, I decided I’d like to expand the real estate practice to include residential real estate, a growing area. They said, “Give us a plan, and if it makes sense, go for it.”
Now. Some of the women I’ve mentored have started their own firms, and we keep in touch. Women are often particularly successful through the quality of their relationships with both coworkers and clients. I tell my clients that when I’m working out an issue for them, I mentally put myself in their seat and act as if I’m a member of their board.
Leah Ward Sears 80L
Partner, Schiff Hardin LLP; former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia; first African American woman chief justice in the United States; first woman and youngest person (age 36) to sit on Georgia’s Supreme Court
Then. As a young person, I thought I could jump into law and help address the big problems of race and gender. My class at Emory was at least one-third women but had only six black students total. The firm where I first worked had very few women, no women partners, no black women. So, I had no role models at all. My parents said, “That’s ok; no one is like you. Just do the best you can.” I worked around the clock, even on weekends and holidays—until my baby son’s sudden hospitalization taught me that I needed to find a better balance.
Now. I don’t see myself as a torch-bearer; I just believe in moving ahead. When I do slow down and look back, I feel good about what I’ve done, especially with my family. Being selected chief justice was a satisfying moment—knowing that my peers, with no hesitation, selected me to lead them.
Sally Hogsette 81L
First full-time executive director of the Atlanta Bar Foundation, Atlanta; formerly general attorney and first full-time international lawyer for Delta Air Lines Inc.
Then. After a wonderful clerkship with Justice Charles L. Weltner, I had several offers from law firms. But I really wanted to work in-house, to sit at the table of one client and help guide the company. My 20 years with Delta were the ultimate career; I probably would have paid them for that job! We built a great legal team to handle Delta’s rapid international expansion.
Now. Following my own interests has brought joy to my practice. After I took early retirement from Delta, the position with the Atlanta Bar Foundation was a match made in heaven. I love the mission of serving the community and am excited about leading this organization to the next level. With so much international travel, I rarely had the chance to focus on my hometown of Atlanta, so this is a rare opportunity to give back to the community that I’ve been a part of for so many years. I’ve had an inspired career — and it’s still going on!
Stephanie Shellenback 82L
Partner, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Chicago; co-chair of the firm’s national recruitment team
Then. Back in 1982, we wore those bow blouses and suits. We tried to dress like men, look like men, act like men. The firm where I started out had just one woman partner, and I was the only woman in my practice group. I had terrific male mentors teaching me about real estate practice, but no women to learn from—so I would size up any woman working on the other side of a deal: How does she operate? How does she interact with the client?
Now. My practice group is still predominantly male, but I no longer look nervously around me, wondering what the next step is going to be. I love what I do; I enjoy getting up every morning and coming to work.
Mary Devlin Capizzi 94L
Managing partner, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Washington, D.C.
Then. “Don’t do it!” That’s what some lawyer friends said when I announced I was headed to law school. But I was young and optimistic—and impressed with what I’d learned about Emory. I had a good experience there, was well prepared for the practice of law, and had no difficulties finding work far from Atlanta. My associate years were stressful at times, and integrating the demands of a busy legal practice with a busy family life still presents challenges. Interesting work and supportive colleagues, combined with my husband’s flexible schedule, helped me navigate many demands as I began my practice and looked to grow it.
Now. Law is demanding work; you’re serving a client, so the pressure will always be there on some level. Women starting out in the profession should explore strategies that facilitate their advancement as well as the optimal use of their talents: Do excellent work. Be your own advocate: if you want new opportunities, make that known and go for them. Request clear feedback—and give it. Be open to change.
Danette Joslyn-Gaul 94L
Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider & Stine PC, Atlanta; in Gov. Zell Miller’s administration, the youngest-ever executive counsel; first general counsel for Georgia Technology Authority
Then. Law school taught me to think differently about study and research; to go beyond the facts and look at patterns, then apply them to new situations. Those skills served me well in an interesting series of professional roles that I explored during my pregnancies and my children’s early years: litigator, lobbyist, writer, executive counsel, general counsel.
Now. I’ve enjoyed settling down again. Wimberly Lawson offers me plenty of opportunities to work with different kinds of cases in commercial, labor and employment law. And the firm has been wonderfully flexible about my parenting obligations. I’m able to work from home two days a week, which is a good arrangement for my family.
Sherry Boston 99L
Partner, The Bernstein Firm PC, Atlanta; Municipal Court judge for the City of Dunwoody, Ga.; 2010 candidate for DeKalb County State Court judge
Then. In high school, I was always a social activist, always wanting to be an advocate. That was a natural fit for a career in law. After Emory, I started out as the only woman associate in the firm. The men were wonderful—they were very supportive when I decided to argue a case (which I won!) in the Georgia Supreme Court, challenging a statute as unconstitutional. But I wanted to meet strong women who could be my mentors—like Leah Ward Sears, whom I had served as a student law clerk at Emory.
Now. I’m now a criminal defense attorney, working with a very strong partner in our two-woman practice. When a part-time judging opportunity came up, I thought, “Let’s see if this is a good fit for me.” Immediately, it was.
Jennifer Dickinson 01L
Associate, Hunter Maclean Exley & Dunn PC, Savannah, Ga.; fourth woman president of the 200-year-old Savannah Bar Association
Then. Yes, in court I’ve actually been called “little lady” and have been mistaken for the court reporter. And many of my contemporaries—even from Washington, D.C.—have the same litany of complaints. But those things haven’t stopped me from wanting to give a voice to people who need it.
Now. I did a lot of research and planning before I proposed my firm’s new pro bono program. I thought, “If we could harness our scattered efforts, work together in the same direction, imagine what we could accomplish!” The firm agreed—and told me, “Go forth and conquer.” I recognize, of course, that following my passion is not without personal risk. You’re not going to be a profit generator if you do that.
Nicole Marchand 03L
Chief assistant solicitor-general, DeKalb County, Ga.; 2010 candidate for DeKalb County State Court judge
Then. What I have seen over the years in so many other women attorneys I’ve known, including Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, is that no matter what happens, you remain professional. You work hard, and even harder—because you represent not just yourself, but all the women who came before you and the ones who will come after you.
Now. In my own work as an attorney, I see that too many people ignore honesty and ethics to accomplish their goals. Even more important, I’ve realized that in this profession, being a woman is not only ok — it’s a strength. I’m proud of how far women have come. If we stay strong, anything is possible!
Jennifer Fairbairn Deal 09L
Clerk for Judge J. Owen Forrester; associate (deferred), Kilpatrick Stockton LLP, Atlanta; first honor graduate in her class
Then. From childhood, my parents and grandparents encouraged me to pursue whatever I wanted to do. And my women friends at Emory were strong and confident; we never had any sense of doubt. When I interviewed with Kilpatrick Stockton, everyone seemed friendly and open. I learned that the intellectual property group contains a large proportion of women, so there’s opportunity for me to grow.
Now. A Kilpatrick Stockton attorney I had lunch with told me that she had been one of two or three women in her law class at Harvard—and when she went out into the world, she had an extremely hard time. It’s not that way for us anymore. While there is still room for improvement, being a woman in the law isn’t the uphill battle it used to be. I look forward to witnessing and working towards further positive growth for women in the legal field.List: <- Back to: News Releases