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Women in the Law Speak Their Truth

By Jeffery Leon

March 9, 2018

In the March 2018 Washington Lawyer, D.C. Bar staff writer Jeffery Leon spoke to five outstanding women lawyers who have broken down barriers and are making their mark in the legal profession. In expanded excerpts of those interviews, four of them share their experiences about the challenges women face in an industry still dominated by men, rising up the career ladder, and maintaining a healthy work–life balance.

Jamie Gorelick leading meeting

Claudia Withers
Chief Operating Officer, NAACP 

Navigating high-level roles as a woman of color

Claudia Withers newspaper article“Like a lot of my colleagues who are women of color, I’ve been in spaces where I'm usually, if not the first, one of the relatively few who have been in that position either as a woman or person of color. I don't feel like I've ever arrived at a place where I didn't have to prove myself and haven't been challenged . . . I am still very conscious of the fact that for many of us, whatever mistakes or missteps we make may be attributed to a whole group of people instead of just to us.”

Continued need for more women in leadership roles

“I think we women of color are still unique as leaders in the law. While there is some progress, there are still relatively few partners in law firms, in senior corporate positions, serving as corporate counsel, in senior positions in the government, and on the bench. Even in the public interest world, while there are some fabulous women of color leading civil rights organizations and women’s organizations, we’re still not adequately represented in terms of leadership positions generally. I especially worry about that lack of representation now, where we are in an environment that seems to be challenging where women and people of color can even be, let alone excel. That’s problematic for our communities, of course, but also for the larger community, which will suffer if we continue to define excellence according to a limited paradigm.”

Marna S. Tucker
Founder, Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP 

How to keep the work–life balance

Legal Times 1983 cover

“When my daughter Cecily was about four, I had to go to California for a meeting. I had never left her overnight before. My husband Larry took care of her while I was gone. Every night I would call and ask him questions like, ‘What did Cecily wear to nursery school? What did you feed her?’ I would debrief him like he was going to starve her. When I came home I asked him a million questions, fretting about what she ate and wore to school. My husband stopped me and said, ‘Marna, I want you to know that when I take care of our daughter she will always be dressed, she will always be fed, and she will always be loved, but when she’s with me, I do it my way, so get off my back!’ I’ll never forget that conversation. It was about control. What you have to do when balancing family and work is that you have to relinquish some control, and that’s not bad at all. (He gave her a peanut butter and M&M sandwich, which pleased her enormously and made me very jealous of his creative lunch skills!)”

Women in the law then and now

Marna Tucker article summer before Georgetown Law“My daughter had a lot more choices than I did growing up. I had to fight for every little thing I wanted because so few women were entering the legal profession. She went to Princeton and Yale Law School, and clerked for a judge on the Eleventh Circuit. She had a host of options. She eventually found her niche in handling criminal justice cases and appeals. This choice gave her the flexibility to be there for her children. She’s also active in the community and ran for political office. She’s now a council member for the Town of Chevy Chase. She entered local politics with a deep appreciation of the fact that that’s the place where women are needed.”

Janea Hawkins
Trial attorney, Office of the Attorney General

The importance of a mentor

“It’s important to have people who are going to be in your corner. To this day I still grab lunch with my first boss, and I chat with her regularly. I was only in that first job for a little over a year, but I gained a lifelong mentor and friend. Young lawyers are very good at networking with people who look like them and are on similar levels, but you really have to look outside of that to broaden your reach.”

Janea Hawkins law school graduation photoShaping the next generation of lawyers

“I really like helping [to] shape the next generation of lawyers and seeing how different law school is now even from when I was there a few years ago. At George Mason [Antonin Scalia Law School], I see some of the same trends that existed when I was applying to law school. Diversity was a very big thing [then]and diversity is still something that many schools, including mine, are combatting on an annual basis. Attrition of minority students will be an issue for a long time, especially with the dwindling numbers of people applying to law school. However, with a solid framework of how to attract and retain minority students, and providing support services to promote their success, it is certainly an achievable goal.”

Jamie Gorelick
Partner, WilmerHale

How parenting humbles you

Jamie Gorelick and child“One of the things I found while at the Pentagon was that being a mom was very helpful in an odd way. The general counsel at the Department of Defense bears the rank of a four-star officer, and when someone of a more senior rank enters the room, those of lesser rank stand up. In most rooms I entered, people stood. After a while, you start to think of yourself as pretty hot stuff. But when I came home at night, my kids did not stand up. If I wanted to be with them, I got down on the floor. That was a good thing for me. Being a parent was a great antidote to becoming full of yourself.”