Senior ISBA women lawyers share law practice insights, wisdom and humor

To celebrate National Women's History Month, we thought it appropriate to communicate with women lawyers and to document their beliefs, observations and insights. We created a brief survey and focused our efforts on experienced ISBA women attorneys (each graduated from law school no later than 1960). In correspondence to these women attorneys, we asked for responses to the following survey questions:

1. What is your most memorable experience in your legal career to date?

2. What is the most significant professional challenge you faced upon law school graduation and what do you think is the most significant challenge facing women today?

3. What have you learned in your career or what advice have you been given that has helped you succeed in your law practice?

4. Do you have a humorous anecdote that you recall fondly associated with being a women lawyer that you would like to share with us?

In conducting this survey, we wanted to highlight the achievements of our women attorneys and provide an opportunity for all of us to benefit from the experiences these women have had in their legal careers to date. A sampling of the responses received are detailed below along with the name of the attorney submitting the response, where she resides and her bar admission date.

1. What is your most memorable professional experience in your legal career to date?

Admission to the Patent Bar as an attorney; serving as President of the Women's Bar Association of Illinois (1969-70); appointment as an Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago. (M. Lois Dierstein, Chicago, IL, Bar Admission: 1957).

When I won the primary election for a seat on the appellate court and was later elected in the general election. The climate was hostile for an unslated candidate but I managed to prevail with big help from the WBAI. (Jill K. McNulty, Chicago, IL).

The most memorable professional experience in my legal career occurred in January 1944, before I ever stepped foot in a county courtroom, conducted a cross examination, or interviewed a witness. As stated in my letter, I took the oath as an attorney in the Harrisburg office of Supreme Court Justice Thompson who represented my district on December 18, 1943. My class was to be admitted in January when the court convened for its Winter term. However, my father represented one of the parties to an election contest case involving a County Judge of Union County Illinois (Tuthill v. Rendleman, 387 ILL. 321) which was set for oral argument at the January term. My father arranged the early admission so that I could orally argue his case. The case required the Supreme Court to reverse its prior holdings. When I got up to make my argument, I was a nervous neophyte, and poured myself a glass of water, with my hand shaking so badly I spilled water all over my notes. I later learned from my father's co-counsel that when he saw my hand shaking he whispered to the attorney, "My God, what have I done to Dorothy." But I had prepared, prepared, and prepared for that argument and I had almost memorized the court's older rulings. I was questioned soundly by the justices but I knew I was ready with the answers. Conclusion: The court did reverse its older rulings and held that our client was successful in the election by three votes. (Dorothy W. Spomer, Cairo, IL, Bar Admission: December 8, 1943).

Trying my first felony jury case and winning it. Working to establish the rule of law in one of the former Soviet Republics-giving input in writing a new constitution, working with lawyers to set ethical code of conduct, conducting seminars about a new legal system, etc. (Regina Narusis, Cary, IL, Bar Admission: 5/19/60).

2. What is the most significant professional challenge you faced upon law school graduation and what do you think is the most significant challenge facing women lawyers today?

Obtaining employment in the profession after graduation from law school. Although I was on the Law Review at Northwestern, most of the law firms would not even give me an interview. Greatest challenge today is for women to get to the top positions in a law firm climate that is sensitive to women's domestic responsibilities. (Jill K. McNulty, Chicago, IL)

Because of my background, I did not face the challenges women face today. When I graduated from college-20 years before I graduated from Law School, women were in a different position. Beginning in the early 1920s, New York's Governor Alfred E. Smith began to appoint qualified women to the bench and to head up administrative agencies. When Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins Secretary of Labor, she was not appointed because she was a WOMAN. She was promoted from her position as New York's Commissioner of Labor and Industry. During the war years (1941 to 1952, if Korea is included) many educationally qualified women were able to find employment commensurate with their skills. The trouble really started in the 1950s, perhaps in reaction to the dearth of men in professional positions during the war, and perhaps in response to some of the social science psychobabble of the day. (There was a great trend in academia to assign "roles"-in other words, pigeon-hole people and consider any deviation as neurotic). It was during this period that women were consigned to marriage and the home. When I became an attorney I was recommended to my jobs-both as house counsel and legal writer-on the basis of my experience.

The greatest challenge to women today appears to be balancing career ambitions and the desire to raise a family. This was easier to do in the 30s and 40s when law was more of an entrepreneurial calling. Women were able to keep their hands in by helping the neighbors and communities with their legal problems and gradually building a new practice. (Gladys Glickman, New York, NY, Bar Admission: 1959).

Upon graduation finding a job as a lawyer, not a clerk or secretary, one that would allow me to try cases. Not trying to be like the men or be one of them, instead enjoying being women, feminine in dress and behavior. (Regina Narusis, Cary, IL, Bar Admission: 5/19/60).

Finding a position commensurate with law school ranking and avoiding being pigeonholed in women's fields (probate and real estate) were my greatest problems. I had an undergraduate degree in business and wanted to work in the corporate or antitrust fields. While good entry-level jobs may be more plentiful, I think women still have problems wit the "glass ceiling." (Leila Merrell Foster, Evanston, IL, Bar Admission: 1953).

3. What have you learned in your career or what advice have you been given that has helped you succeed in your law practice?

My advice to new women lawyers: study, study, study! Be smarter than the next one if possible. Walk into a courtroom thinking that you are well prepared for what comes. (Dorothy W. Spomer, Cairo, IL, Bar Admission: December 8, 1943).

All men are not your enemies. Their problems may be somewhat different but they have no bed of roses. In recent years people (men and women) hired at six-figure salaries have been laid off as if they were assembly line workers, except they have no right of seniority recall. Their salaries are often an impediment to finding other employment and I am told that getting together and forming a new firm is not an option. This is unfortunate both for young lawyers and for the middle-class client. There might be less unlawful practice of law if there were more small, growing law firms. (Gladys Glickman, New York, NY, Bar Admission: 1959).

When I began the practice of law in 1960, there was not much advice available. First you must enjoy what you are doing. Set your goals and go for them. Work hard, live by your standards and balance your work with your private life. (Regina Narusis, Cary, IL, Bar Admission: 5/19/60).

"Don't admit that you can type." Now with computers, everyone types. But in the 50s, it was important to be seen as a lawyer and not as a legal secretary. Your image of yourself as a professional communicates itself to others. (Leila Merrell Foster, Evanston, IL, Bar Admission: 1953).

4. Do you have a humorous anecdote that you recall fondly associated with being a woman lawyer that you would like to share with us?

When I joined a law firm upon graduation from law school, I was sent to federal court to answer a status call on a pending case. Every time I approached the bench the judge would say, "Young lady, are you a lawyer?" I answered, "Yes." On my fifth trip to federal court to answer the status call on this case, I was asked for the fifth time by the judge if I was a lawyer and for the fifth time I answered in the affirmative. At this point my opponent said, "Judge, I will stipulate to the fact that she is a lawyer." The judge flushed with embarrassment and never asked that question of me again and I was very grateful to my gracious opponent for the elegant and effective way he put the issue to rest. (Jill K. McNulty, Chicago, IL).

I do not recall a humorous anecdote associated with being a woman lawyer, but I recall campaigning for my first election in 1950. I went house to house in the county and city handing out my cards and soliciting votes. In all my campaigns, there were only two men who looked at my card, looked me straight in the eye, tore up the card, and threw it at me. The first man called me later that day, said he was sorry for his bad manners and asked if he could hand out some election cards for me. The other man after my election had a young son in juvenile court for a serious crime. He was so distraught that he approached me as I entered the front door of the courthouse, put his head on my shoulder, and sobbed uncontrollably. In retrospect, I hope I comforted him, one human being to another. (Dorothy W. Spomer, Cairo, IL, Bar Admission: December 8, 1943).

Convincing men that I was a lawyer and a pretty good one. There were many humorous anecdotes around those circumstances. I know my Judges enjoyed them more than I did. (Regina Narusis, Cary, IL, Bar Admission: 5/19/60).

The large law firm with which I was associated always took a couple of tables for the Supreme Court dinner. In the '50s, young women wore hats and white gloves for such occasions. The senior partner at our table looked over at me and said, "You don't look much like a lawyer." I replied, "How should a lawyer look?" He responded, "Like an old codger like myself." With the increase of women in the profession, I think that the image of a lawyer has changed! (Leila Merrell Foster, Evanston, IL, Bar Admission: 1953).

As we have received more responses than could be addressed in this article, we plan to prepare a Part II version of this article that will appear in our next newsletter.

The Catalyst editors wish to sincerely thank each woman attorney who responded to our survey. We appreciate the opportunity granted us to document some of the living history of women lawyers in Illinois.

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February 2004Volume 9Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)