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August 28, 2012 Articles

Gutsy Career Moves: Anecdotes from Women Lawyers

A variety of stories from women lawyers detail their own courageous career choices, both large and small.

By Lisa Frye Garrison

There are moments in every lawyer’s career when she has the choice to take the smooth and easy path or the tougher, uphill trail. Sometimes the choice seems “small” in the grand scheme of things—like overlooking a sexist comment instead of confronting the speaker directly. Sometimes the choice is obviously much “bigger”—like choosing where to practice law or whether to sue an employer for wrongdoing.

This article offers a variety of stories from women lawyers across the country about their own courageous career choices, both large and small. I asked them to tell these stories in The Woman Advocate, because, when I shared those stories with other women lawyers, they were as inspired and encouraged as I was. May these anecdotes embolden you when you are faced with “a choice between what is right and what is easy” (as J.K. Rowling puts it in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Nancy O’Mara Ezold, founder and partner, Ezold Law Firm, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania:

In 1989, I was the first woman to bring to trial a claim against a law firm for sex discrimination in the denial of partnership (Ezold v. Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen). When I was denied partnership, I believed it was because of discrimination. I tried to resolve the dispute with the firm, but when that didn’t work, bringing suit was not only the logical option, it was the only option.

I was (and still am) a litigator, so I knew what I was getting into. I knew that there was strong evidence for my claim but had no idea what was in the evaluation files. One of the things my case stands for is the proposition that you can prove your case using other associates’ personnel files.

I had a young son when the case went to trial, so going through the trial was tough on many levels. But I had the best, dedicated counsel in the country—the late Judith Vladeck. It was an honor to have her as my counsel.

The verdict was very satisfying. Although we lost on appeal, we had tremendous support from groups all over the country, as amici. When I gave talks about the case across the country, women told me that they felt they were finally getting a chance.

Andrea S. Kramer, partner, McDermott Will & Emery, Chicago, Illinois:

I got out of law school in the late 1970s. Few women were at law firms at that time. I was the only woman associate at my firm. (There was one woman partner.)

One day, there was a meeting in our large conference room to address a huge project for a big-firm client, and the table was full of lawyers, with me the only woman. The meeting was winding down, and a few assignments had been given out. The senior partner stood up and walked out of the room. Everyone stood up and followed him out of the room. He was still giving out assignments—and I did not have one yet—when he walked into the men’s room. He was followed into the men’s room by every male lawyer who had not already gotten an assignment. The door slammed in my face.

I stood there for a second trying to figure out what to do and then walked right in as fast as I could (before they started to adjust their clothes). I said, “If you’re going to give assignments out in the men’s room, you’ll all need to get used to me standing here.” No more assignments—where I was involved—were ever given out in the men’s room. But whenever there was a prank in the men’s room, I was always jokingly blamed for the prank!

The Honorable Caryl P. Privett, Tenth Judicial Circuit Judge, Jefferson County, Birmingham, Alabama:

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and graduated from law school at NYU in 1973. When I came home to Birmingham to practice law in 1974, I was the only white lawyer, and the only female lawyer, in an all-black law firm where I had clerked in 1972. I came home to be a civil rights lawyer. I was tired of hearing the term “outside agitators” being applied to civil rights supporters; I decided to be an “inside agitator.”

At the time, I recognized that this decision could possibly limit future career choices. But it turned out, over nearly 40 years, not to have been a detriment to my career. I encourage young lawyers to follow your passion, because what may appear to limit you in the future may instead be an asset in the future. Following your passion may be the best decision you ever make. It was for me.

Amy M. Stewart, associate, Bickel & Brewer, Dallas, Texas:

At a prior firm, everyone was assured that there was a “no a--hole policy”—that jerks were not tolerated and would be shown the door when necessary to maintain office morale. One partner made it a point to counsel me about the importance of treating all legal assistants and secretaries with the utmost respect.

Yet this partner ended up being the worst offender of them all! There were times when he screamed at his secretary at the top of his lungs, red-faced, all the while spewing venomous words. While the other partners, associates (including me), and legal assistants cringed, in the end we all looked the other way. After the tirades ended, I reached out to the secretary and offered useless advice, such as to “shrug it off” or to “keep her head up.”

Then I realized that I, as well as every other person who stood around and did nothing while the partner derided her, was complicit in her embarrassment. After much deliberation, I felt the best way to deal with the situation, without simultaneously destroying my short-lived career at the firm by taking the partner head-on, was to mention the issue in my year-end evaluation. So, when the routine question about the atmosphere around the office was asked, I informed the head of litigation of the situation.

To the firm’s credit, the partner was counseled about his behavior, and the mistreatment ended abruptly. As a result, the morale in the litigation department as a whole was lifted. In the end, I was proud that I had the guts to stand up for what I believe in—that everyone, from the managing firm partner to the night cleaning crewmember, should be treated with common decency and respect. And I was proud of the firm for standing up and enforcing its “no a--hole” policy.

Anna D. Torres, partner, Powers McNalis Torres Teebagy & Luongo, West Palm Beach, Florida:

I started my legal career in San Diego, but being a young lawyer and single mom was a challenge. My family was mostly in Florida, and I knew that having their support at that point in my life would make me a more successful mom and lawyer. By the time I joined my current firm, in 1999, I had already chosen to make two career moves since arriving in Florida. Although I had enjoyed my experiences at two other firms and made good friends, I had not found my professional “home.” In truth, I was starting to think that career satisfaction was as elusive as a pink unicorn. I had never had the traditional goal of becoming a “partner” at a firm and never defined success as necessarily achieving that position. I needed a place where I could be professionally comfortable and make a good living until my daughter was older and I could find the elusive pink unicorn of career satisfaction that didn’t seem to be possible in the law-firm environment.

As it turns out, I was in for a surprise. Our senior partner became an unlikely but terrific mentor, allowing me a level of freedom and autonomy in my practice that I had not experienced at any of my prior positions. He asked me to lead the firm’s recruiting efforts in order to increase diversity in the ranks of our lawyers. He recognized and encouraged my budding interest in business development and began to teach me the needed skills.

Over time, I enjoyed the work I was doing, but it was not necessarily work that I found stimulating day to day. Frankly, I was a little bored with it. It occurred to me that I could continue to do that work and be OK with that, or I could find a way to develop work that I found more interesting. And so, with not much more than that idea, I approached my firm’s two senior partners and asked whether they would support me if I started a new department within the firm.

“My” department would focus on handling liability defense and coverage matters, rather than the first-party property coverage matters that formed the firm’s practice at the time. I was asked to come up with a business plan, set some goals, and let them know what resources I needed and how I would become profitable: no small task for an English major who had never taken a business class or been involved the management of any kind of business. My first step was to search “business plan” on the Internet. After I submitted my plan, the two senior partners generously agreed to provide me with the resources I needed, allowed me the opportunity to make decisions, and provided guidance where I lacked skills. But the success or failure of my plan fell strictly on my shoulders.

At first, my “department” was me, one paralegal, and one legal assistant. My department now makes up roughly 30 percent of the firm’s business, with plans to continue growing. In 2002, I became a partner at the firm. As it turns out, it was probably the decision to create and build my department that has kept me from leaving the practice of law. There have been, and continue to be, many headaches along the way. But I don’t regret the moment when I walked into that office with more confidence than sense. Taking that step affected me professionally and personally in ways that I did not imagine at the time and allowed me to finally find my professional “home.”

Heather C. White, partner, Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP, Charlotte, North Carolina:

My twin boys were born when I was a mid-level associate at my firm. When I returned to work after a total of five months out (between bed rest and maternity leave), my next annual review came around just a few short months later. During the review, a partner suggested that while he encouraged cross-office work and travel, he would not expect me to do that with the new babies. I promptly responded that my children would not prevent me from traveling or from working on engaging, challenging work. The partner took me at my word—and promptly staffed me on a case requiring plenty of cross-office and other travel. The boys are now four, their older sister is now seven, and I am now a partner with plenty of work (and travel!).

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, women, career, firm, courage