May 01, 2015

Defining Moments: Find Your Voice (Because Nobody Is Going to Give It to You)

Melanie Bragg

One of my interviewees for my upcoming book Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul is Barbara Mendel Mayden, former Chair of the Business Law Section and former Chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division.

She had several defining moments in life before her ah-hah moment where she “found her voice.” Barbara became interested in the law in junior high when a civics teacher of hers got in trouble for teaching about the different forms of government, which included communism. A parent called him into court, and she reports that it was “humiliating for him and horrifying for his students.” It didn’t seem right to her that our justice system could subject somebody to that kind of treatment. He said the “C” word along with the concepts of anarchy and democracy. It was a “radicalizing moment” for her.

After law school she went to work with King & Spalding as one of the few women lawyers there. Until then she did not consider herself a “joiner.” When the Eighth National Conference of Women in the Law was scheduled to come to Atlanta, and they canceled because Georgia was a non-ERA state, Barbara jumped on board to make it happen. She felt strongly that if any state needed a conference on women on the law, it was a non-ERA state. She joined the host committee to make sure women in Georgia learned about how the law affected women and how the law could be used as an instrument for change. It was a defining moment for her when the conference was held in Atlanta. She surprised herself when she realized she could really use her advocacy skills for good.

Barbara is a prolific public speaker with a great sense of humor. She reports that in law school she had a horrible fear of public speaking. She says, “When I stood up, my brain fell to my feet. I couldn’t talk. I was terrified. It was excruciating. I knew that I could never do any public speaking.”

But the real defining moment came in the 70s when there were business clubs for “men only.” I remember those clubs in Houston where I was the only woman law clerk in the room.

One day Barbara was going to lunch at a club in Richmond, Virginia, and as they entered, the staff said, “Oh, no. You can’t go in with them. You have to go in through the kitchen.” The men walked in the front door, and she was told to go in through the kitchen. Barbara recounts that she was so young it never occurred to her to say, “I am not walking through the kitchen. This is wrong.”

Another time she went to New York to meet a group for a closing dinner and went directly over from the plane, suitcase in hand. She arrived and told them she was there for the XYZ dinner. They said it did not start until 7:30 and it was just 6:30. Despite the fact that it was snowing outside, and she had her suitcase in her hand, they told her she would have to wait outside because “unescorted women cannot wait in the club until a male shows up to escort them in.” She quipped, “Do I look like a prostitute?” She still did not get in and waited outside in the snow until the first man in the group showed up.

Barbara reports that it was “discomforting” to say the least. Then she realized later that it was more upsetting to realize that she did not possess the courage to confront them. She knew it was wrong.

In that moment, Barbara realized she “needed a voice” and that she needed to “establish some authority.” She pondered and found a way to keep this from happening again. Not long thereafter, she was in one of the same clubs with the archaic rules and was the only woman and clearly the youngest person in a big group of about 20 men. She immediately felt, “Oh my God, how am I going to handle this?” Then, Barbara says, “It just came to me. I walked over to the head of the table, slapped my briefcase down and said in a stron and confident voice, 'Gentlemen, let’s get started.'"

The men in the room “stood up straighter and went ‘Whoa!’ and sat down.” Barbara observes, “It just took that little bit of assertiveness for me to be taken seriously. It shifted everything . I realized that I had to stand up for myself. I had to overcome that fear and the terror of not knowing what the heck I was talking about. So I just harnessed my sense of power and found the confidence to speak up. My friends all know I have never had that problem again. Finding my voice was empowering and very defining for me.”

The moral to the story is this: find your voice because no one is going to give it to you.

Please respond and share your finding your voice stories with me at Melanie@bragglawpc.com.

Melanie Bragg

Melanie Bragg has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Houston’s fiercest attorneys in her representation of children, the elderly, and mentally disadvantaged people.  Her firm, Bragg Law PC, is a general civil firm in Houston, Texas. She also writes and produces legal education programs through Legal Insight, Inc. (founded by Bragg in 1993). Her writing credits include HIPAA for the General Practitioner as well as the upcoming book Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul to be published by the American Bar Association (ABA) flagship division. When she is not writing, Melanie devotes her time to her work as chair of the Book Publications Board of the ABA Solo, Small Firm General Practice Division and sharing ideas with fellow authors. She can be reached at Melanie@bragglawpc.com.