Texas Supreme Court Judge Harriet O'Neill told 560 of her fellow lawyers at the Dallas Bar Association today that she'd rather be called "hon" than "ho." She was referring to the use of her initials when she was appointed to the court, and her quip set the tone for the whole third annual "Inspiring Women" luncheon. One of the best ways to deal with difficult issues -- such as sexism in the workplace, which was a major topic of discussion at the event -- is to joke about it, and there was no shortage of laughs at the Belo Mansion luncheon.
Seven of the most respected lawyers in Dallas -- and Texas -- talked about business development, mentoring, and balancing work and family life. On the panel: Fifth District Court of Appeals Judge Elizabeth Lang-Miers, Dallas County 95th District Court Judge Karen Gren Johnson, commercial litigator Kim Askew, U.S. Northern District Court Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn, general counsel for Children's Medical Center Regina Montoya, and the aforementioned Texas Supreme Court Judge O'Neill. At the luncheon, the DBA balanced old-school, even pandering, ladybusiness with career-minded, honest talk about sexism.
They opened with a fashion show featuring the seven panelists clad in Stanley Korshak-donated designs from Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors and others. From the gift bags to the napkins to the flavored tea, everything was pink, which is kind of schlocky, if not surprising. High-end giveaways way, way more than made up for the $15 lunch, with Harriet Miers -- she of the Bush Supreme Court nomination -- winning a $475 David Yurman necklace for being the longest-practicing lawyer in the room. Gifts were distributed through a show of hands -- the one with the most kids, or pets, who'd seen the most chick flicks or had the most diapers in her purse -- won spa treatments and classy shopping gift certificates to Jimmy Choo and the like.
Overall, the event highlighted an issue facing many professional women today, not just laywers -- how to perform and practice femininity in a male-dominated field, and indeed, in a world that demands so much of its women that we're all familiar with the term "superwoman" -- she who manages to have both a family and a career. (Fun fact: working women still do more housework than their husbands.) And while I'm not a fan of seeing women, career-oriented or otherwise, shoved into the shoes-and-chocolate mold, clearly many of them at today's DBA event liked shoes, chocolate, and kicking ass in the courtroom. These things aren't and shouldn't be mutually exclusive or surprising.
From the elder members of the panel, there were stories of the true old boys' club of lawyering -- when women were actually, physically segregated from eating in dining rooms downtown. Regina Montoya, who once worked for pioneering American lawyer Judge Sarah T. Hughes (who is the only woman to have sworn in a U.S. president -- Lyndon B. Johnson, after Kennedy's assassination), recalled being inspired by Hughes' storming of one such dinner club. Instead of going through the buffet and sitting in the women-appropriate outside vestibule, Hughes sat down in the main dining room. The men were appalled. Hughes stood her ground.
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Kelly McClure, mother to four boys, spoke about balancing family and work life. When she was pregnant with her twin sons fourteen years ago, McClure said she'd spent all night preparing for a trial, only to have opposing counsel object on the basis of her pregnancy. The judge granted the objection, and McClure was off the case. (Another panelists said she'd experienced the same thing.) Further, with regard to the "superwoman" ideal of the working mother, McClure said, "I've given up on trying to be perfect," she said, and advised female lawyers with children to try and simply "be there" as often as possible, even if that means taking late-evening work calls in the car while chauffeuring the kids around.
Kim Askew, one of Dallas' most prominent African-American attorneys talked about the importance of working with "trainable" male colleagues, who wouldn't write her off as a woman or who could at least be convinced not to, when she first began practicing years ago. "Once we decided there was a pattern where the men were getting what we thought were the key cases, I remember I went and I talked to someone who was trainable. Something was done."
The panelists encouraged women to be more assertive. "You are your own best advocate," Kim Askew advised, noting that clients aren't simply going to volunteer themselves when it comes to business development.
All of the women spoke highly of the profession and of their colleagues, male and female. It was hardly a whine-and-moan session about how it's hard out here for a ladylawyer. Certainly the enthusiasm of the hundreds of attendees--and the ten (!) guys that attended -- demonstrates that there is a powerful, supportive force behind female lawyers, massage gift certificates and couture clothing notwithstanding.