May 09, 2016

The Women Who Tread Where Men Still Rule: A Place at the Table in a Man’s World

By Ann Farmer

When Deborah Waters set off for law school in ’85, she didn’t know of a single woman who practiced maritime law litigation. “But I knew what I wanted,” she says, and confided to one of her professors at the College of William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law that she intended to break into that ubermacho arena.

A few days later, he pulled her aside. With a worried look on his face, he said, “My dear, you don’t want to practice maritime law. It’s a rough-and-tumble world out there. It’s no place for a lady.” He was practically patting her on the head at the same time.

“It really is rough and tumble,” says Waters, speaking from her Waters Law Firm located in the harbor district of Norfolk, Virginia, where she specializes in cargo disputes and personal injury claims on behalf of dockworkers, ferry operators, commercial fishermen, unions, freight owners, and others involved in mishaps at sea or on land.

“I’m still often the only woman in the room,” she reports, describing the maritime law field as “heavily, heavily male-dominated.” However, she says, “Across the board, I’m treated with respect because they know that I know what I’m doing.”

Maritime law is just one of many legal fields in which the men continue to outnumber the women lawyers. Patent law, construction, real estate, oil and gas, sports—those are some of the other sectors that women lawyers have had a hard time elbowing into. But women are making strides. And they get all kinds of satisfaction from doing what was once considered strictly men’s work.

“Maritime law is absolutely fascinating,” says Waters, who was recently appointed to the Board of Commissioners of the Virginia Port Authority by the governor. She also became the first woman to chair the Admiralty Section of the American Association for Justice. She’s on an advisory committee regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And remember that Tom Hanks film, Captain Phillips, based on the true story of a Maersk container ship hijacked by Somali pirates? Well, Waters successfully brokered an agreement for 11 of those crew members.

Intellectual Property Law

“Having a passion always helps,” says Antoinette Konski, an intellectual property (IP) lawyer and partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, where she cochairs the firm’s Life Sciences Industry Team and is vice chair of the Chemical, Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Practice.

Starting out as a lab technician in a tumor immunology laboratory at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Konski decided that she could also support science research by pursuing IP law. Today she counsels clients on invention and licensing disputes, advises them on due diligence investigations, and suggests commercial applications for those inventions that might apply outside their area of expertise.

Konski loves the creative aspects of IP law. She’s worked with four Nobel laureates and assisted on the first gene therapy patent. One client was Jonas Salk, the researcher and virologist who discovered and developed the first polio vaccine.

“Definitely when I entered the field it was male dominated,” she says, recalling that she didn’t know of any women partners at Foley when she first started there. The reason can be partly attributed to the field’s requirement for a dual degree in both law and either science, technology, engineering, or mathematics—academic areas that men have traditionally embraced more than women.

But that is changing. The American Intellectual Property Law Association notes that an increasing number of women are pursuing biology and chemistry degrees. And Law360’s Glass Ceiling Report: 2015 noted that in the 19 firms that self-identify as IP boutiques, women lawyers account for 24.27 percent of all the attorneys and 21.56 percent of the partners.

“We have such a pool of talent now,” says Konski, noting that most attorneys have advanced degrees and postdoctoral experience. “The hurdle women still face is in rainmaking and being able to generate business.”

Sports Law

As the daughter of Hall of Fame football coach Ron McBride, Jill McBride Baxter grasped football from a young age. She jokes that law school “was Greek to me,” referring to all the Latin terminology she had to master. But she could watch a football player move his feet and tell if he was any good. “I can look in his eyes and tell if he’s got that fire in his belly,” she explains. “Travis Coons, kicker for Cleveland. I found him. I looked at him. I said, ‘That guy’s got it.’”

Now one of the leading women sports attorneys in the country, Baxter represents NFL players, college football athletes, coaches, and other football professionals. But she experienced pushback when she first eyed a career in sports law more than 25 years ago. She was attending law school at University of the Pacific Sacramento and serving as president of the sports law forum when she invited legendary sports agent Leigh Steinberg to speak.

“I raised my hand. I said, ‘Do you think women can become NFL sports lawyers?’ He said, ‘No.’”

However, when one of her dad’s players, Gary Anderson, who is now head coach at Oregon State University, needed some legal advice on an NFL contract, he became her first client. She continued to get referrals, she says. “That’s how I progressed.”

Only about one of every 18 certified NFL agents is a woman, according to 2015 NFL Players Association statistics. But Baxter has found that being a woman in the field has its advantages. When she’s networking or checking out potential clients, “I’m usually the only female. It’s easy to find me and identify me.” But, she adds, “If you have what they want, they don’t care what gender you are.”

To make it in her field, she says, lawyers need a command of employment, union, compensation, and contract law. For example, coaches “don’t read their contracts” but rely on her to scrutinize the fine print and negotiate favorable terms.

For the players, her biggest concern is injuries. She tells them to call her immediately when they get hurt so she can safeguard their financial rights and ensure them top-notch medical treatment.

Having grown up in that world, she also understands the lifestyle. “You move a lot,” she says. “It’s a hard life.” But she won’t take on a client who doesn’t follow the rules. “If I go meet with a player, I either connect or I don’t. I’m there to protect and advocate for them. It’s better if we have the same values.”

Construction Law

When she takes on a new case, Lisa Wampler, a construction law litigator and managing partner of the Pittsburgh-based firm Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC, she dons steel-toed boots and a hardhat and traipses through a dirty construction site to evaluate the situation.

When she joined the firm in 2003, two years after she graduated from Dickinson School of Law, she only needed to glance around to see that she was stepping into a man’s world. “There is still just a small group of us women,” says Wampler, who chairs the firm’s Women’s Initiative and is also a member of several builder and contractor associations.

She didn’t start out with an itch for construction law. While she was growing up, her dad ran a masonry contracting business. “I didn’t know that much about what he did then,” Wampler recalls, “but I do now.” Her only experience, she says, “was over the summers in college, when I worked in a steel manufacturing plant. So I was already used to steel-toed boots.”

When she was presented the opportunity to develop this niche practice, she says, “I was excited to become an expert in a field, not a jack-of-all-trades.”

Wampler mastered the technical terms associated with construction. She became proficient in the types of damages that occur during construction delays, involving things like drywall, electricity, and concrete. “I had to prove that I knew what I was talking about,” she explains; as in the case with concrete, “I need to know core sampling.” She adds, “It’s nice to know that I have a good grasp.”

When conducting meetings, she makes extra sure to take charge of the room while also establishing rapport. “I take time to develop a relationship with the client,” she says. “I’m not sure if men are that way.”

Energy Law

Having worked in oil, gas, and energy law for more than 30 years, Becky Miller has watched the gender barriers slowly decline. “It’s still male dominated. But not nearly like it was,” says Miller, whose interest in the industry was piqued by her grandfather’s stories about working on a drilling crew in Oklahoma.

When she started with her Austin-based firm, Scott Douglass & McConnico LLP, there was just one other woman lawyer. On an early gas case, she recalls how a federal magistrate judge told her she couldn’t know as much as he did and to sit down and be quiet. Miller didn’t let his churlish behavior trip her up. “I kept talking,” she says.

Clients would also take one look at her and say, “You can’t know anything about this.” They would ask to change lawyers. But the firm always said no. “It was an exciting place, and they supported young lawyers,” says Miller, describing how her boss coached her on how to elucidate the technicalities to a jury. Since then, she’s tried cases all over Texas—“wherever wells are located,” as her resume states.

Miller’s never been one to smoke cigars or nab a barstool after a long day at trial. But she’s successfully defended clients in everything from royalty lawsuits to riverbed mineral claims in excess of $40,000,000. She’s navigated disputes involving oil leases—for example, an operator fails to reasonably develop a property—or legal squabbles involving drainage issues in which a neighbor claims an underground trespass occurred during a fracking operation. She was also the first woman to cochair the State Bar of Texas Committee for Oil, Gas, and Energy Resources Pattern Jury Charges.

Early on, she experienced one small advantage to being a woman. When she’d go to oil and gas seminars, the line at the women’s restroom was short while at the men’s it was out the door. And her field may still resemble a men’s club at times. But no one doubts Miller’s expertise anymore; as she says, “I have too big a name.”