Challenging Expectations

It’s no secret our country’s general populice has had its share of controversy over gender equality. From ownership to responsibility, voting rights to income earned, civil debate continues over what is fair, equal and expected.

Whether this controversy originates from the religious platform or has seen its greater influence there, it becomes a test of wills to enter the conversation, conduct ones’ self with poise through it and/or conclude with any degree of self-respect as a result.

My work with the attorney community brings this controversy back into view, even today. As I look to support individuals who wish to speak with confidence in the lawyer market, often I am led to supporting women. Is it because women are by nature less secure? I believe the answer is no. Is it because women attorneys face circumstances men may not face? Perhaps.

Interestingly, most of the attorneys who turn to my help are men. However, the issue of female attorneys facing challenges in the profession continue to be brought to my attention – even by males.

Merri, what programs can you offer us at the Supreme Court to support Women Attorneys?

A year ago this question was posed by a gentleman with a keen eye and interest in supporting female attorneys. At the time I was unaware of the challenges they face, the demographics of most firms, let alone I paid little attention to the history of the profession. Since then, I have marvelled at the journey of several FIRST women attorneys.

Bella Mansfield, influenced by both her brother and husband to study law, was the first female in the US to earn a law degree – the same year women were admitted to law school. Belle Mansfield (later, self-fashioned Arabella) passed the Iowa bar exam in 1868 and then, in 1869, she was called to the bar of the state, thus becoming the first woman ever called to practice law in the world; by some definitions, the world’s first woman lawyer.

“We feel justified in recommending to the Court that construction which we deem authorized not only by the language of the law itself, but by the demands and necessities of the present time and occasion. Your Committee takes unusual pleasure in recommending the admission of Mrs. Mansfield, not only because she is the first lady who has applied for this authority in the State, but because in her examination she has given the very best rebuke possible to the imputation that ladies cannot qualify for the practice of law; and we feel confident from the intimation of the Court, given on the application made that we speak not only the sentiments of the Court and of your committee, but of the entire membership of the bar, when we say that we heartily welcome Mrs. Mansfield as one of our members, and we most cordially recommend her admission.” See this website for more on Bella Mansfield:

Although she never used her license, she entered the women’s suffragette movement, stayed in academia and encouraged the promotion of women for their intellect as well as their intuition.

Many milestones have been accomplished in the female litigation world today.

“Claudia Gordon, Esq., is the first deaf lawyer who is African American and female, and also the first deaf student to graduate from the American University (AU) Washington College of Law, in Washington, DC, in 2000. At AU, Gordon specialized in disability rights law and policy. Since earning her juris doctorate from AU, Gordon has been active in working to ensure the rights of people with disabilities are respected.” Thank you, Jamie Berke, Guide,Updated May 04, 2009

Since many attorneys enter the political environment to become public servants, we also are familiar with Jennifer Grandholm, current governor of Michigan. A few firsts about her include,

She was elected Michigan’s first female attorney general in 1998. Granholm was elected governor in 2002 and reelected in 2006 and was once considered a possible Supreme Court nominee.

So if female attorneys are making such progress today, are things getting any easier?

This morning I read an article written by attorney Heather McCloskey in 2006 who shares the challenges women attorneys face. Whether from judges, clients or opposing attorneys, there is still a rite of passage (as would be expected of any professional, let alone female) to be endured.

In my humble summary, it appears that if women are willing to defend their right to own a career, to stand in a firm or courtroom surrounded predominantly by men, to be referred to as a clerk vs. lead counsel and to be expected to wear skirts vs. slacks, they can continue to make progress. Pioneers can be women too, if these women are up to it. If they are, there will be deference to another style of communicating with clients who need it, they will continue to prove logical and reasonable thinking while also being intuitive, and there will be professionals who connect on very influential levels.

To all you female attorneys, speak with confidence. We need you.

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On August 23rd, 2010, posted in: breakthrough, challenges by