Women trial lawyers

I graduated law school in 1972. Our class had several lawyers who ended up making their living as trial lawyers. One of them, Bill Riley, is now the Chief Judge of the Eighth Circuit and member of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States. The foregoing said, the Class of 1972 at the University of Nebraska College of Law did not include a single woman.

Elaine Mittleman, an experienced federal appellate practitioner, recently sent me an article about the retirement of a woman litigator. Grace Day called it quits this fall from one of Missouri’s preeminent law firms. Ms. Day practiced just down the road in St. Joseph. I am sorry to say that I never had occasion to cross her path. By all accounts, she was a kind but tough trial lawyer and the fact that she practiced law for 63 years is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her many accomplishments. See Marshall White, Attorney Grace Day leaves a legacy for women attorneys, St. Joseph News-Press (Oct 25, 2013).

 Photo by Jessica Stewart | St. Joseph News-Press

Photo by Jessica Stewart | St. Joseph News-Press

The accomplishments of Ms. Day, and the fact that I graduated law school 23 years after she did but without one woman in our class, started me thinking about woman trial lawyers, and particularly those who practice in federal court. I first thought about our Chief Judge, Laurie Smith Camp, and what a great litigator she was until she took the bench as the first female federal district judge in the District of Nebraska. I then thought of Marnie Jensen, a litigation partner at a national law firm with offices in Nebraska, and former law clerk on our court. My thoughts then turned to Sara Fullerton, a federal prosecutor here in the District of Nebraska. All three of these women are or were superb federal trial lawyers and wonderful people to boot.

While my law school education was excellent, I wish Grace Day, Laurie Smith Camp, Marnie Jensen or Sara Fullerton or others like them would have been among my classmates. I am much the poorer for their absence.


Thanks to Elaine Mittleman and the Polsinelli law firm, I have been privileged to see a video tribute to Grace Day that includes Ms. Day speaking about her experiences. It is well worth viewing. See here.


10 responses

  1. Thank you for your kind comments, Rich. As you know, it took Title IX to open the doors of law schools, and higher education in general, to women. I was in the second post-Title IX class admitted to the UN-L College of Law, and the professors and administrators still weren’t quite ready. When the new law school building opened in 1975, both public restrooms on either side of the law library were dedicated to “Men.” The restroom on the south side now bears a plaque in recognition of the women who liberated that restroom, slapped a make-shift “Women” sign on the door, and stuck a potted plant in the urinal. I am very grateful to to women lawyers who went before me. Being excluded, ridiculed, and lonely isn’t fun — and that’s what most of them had to endure. You’re also very wise to acknowledge that you and your classmates were disadvantaged by the absence of women. I’m glad you’ve recovered.

  2. I am grateful to have had many great women in my graduating class (1989). I was too young to appreciate it then, and of course, too immature and self-centered at that age to really understand how times had changed even by then that a huge percentage of my class (if not half then close) were women. We were still short other minorities (unless you consider alcoholics minorities!) but, I guess you can’t have it all. Some of the greatest lawyers I have dealt with in my career were those barrier breaking women. Of course it took me a long time and a lot of knocks along the way to really understand how difficult the road has been for other than non-white men.

  3. You and I graduated from law school the same year. Unlike you, I did have a few women as classmates. I knew they were a new phenomenon at my law school, but I was so intimated by the whole experience of law school that I gave their issues little thought. I certainly made no attempt to befriend any of them and as a result, I knew none of them. I regret that now, but that does little for any of them.

    The legal profession is a better place with the larger number of women in it. It remains a challenge for all of us to make their membership in our profession full and equal.

    P.S. As oblivious as I was, I was still shocked when our property professore reminisced in class about the times “when men were men and women did not go to law school.”

  4. As the Chief Judge says so much better above, I’m very grateful for the trailblazers. I’m also grateful for the recognition that diversity, including gender diversity, is valuable in countless ways. A more diverse pool of people trying to resolve or tackle a problem has led, in my experience, to a better resolution. That said, even though women make up nearly half of law school students, they do not make up anywhere near that in the federal judiciary, in big law firm leadership, or in corporate leadership. Much ink has been spilled on why. I need not get on my soapbox about it, but here is a good link to the numbers: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/marketing/women/current_glance_statistics_feb2013.authcheckdam.pdf

  5. MJ,

    I do not doubt that there is a glass ceiling and cultures change too slowly, but ultimately the practice of law, particularly the practice of trial law, at the highest level is and always will be about huge sums of money. Women (and men) must learn that to play on that elevated field exacts a painfully high human price regardless of gender and they must be willing to pay the price if they want to achieve in that stratosphere.

    Sorry for preaching to the choir. I know that you are fully aware of what it means to be a trial lawyer who plays in the big leagues and I deeply respect your willingness to do so.

    All the best.


  6. You could not be more right. An entire blog could be (and, probably is) devoted to why women are less willing to pay that price. Maybe your next blog?

  7. I would like to agree with Chief Judge Camp’s comments and note that I had similar experiences – both at law school and in undergraduate school. I do want to give credit to the professors on the financial aid committee at Michigan Law School. When I was applying in early 1977, they were very encouraging to me. I had a particular fondness for Professor L. Hart Wright. I think their willingness to admit me and provide financial aid made all the difference in my opportunity to go to Michigan Law, which was a great experience. Elaine Mittleman

  8. Rich, I was lucky. I graduated from law school (University of California, Davis) in 1986 and our class was exactly evenly divided by gender (74 each). I also met my wife in law school. I remember being dumbfounded by the story of Sandra Day O’Connor graduating 3rd in her law school class (at some school called “Stanford”) and the only job she could get was as a legal secretary. Fortunately one of the partners discovered her in the firm’s law library on a Saturday researching a complicated issue and ordered her hired as an associate. Best, Pat.

  9. I found this wonderful blog from an article at WSJ today. I’m not in the legal profession and know nothing of its nuances. And I find the contributions here from RGK and those who comment fascinating. It is wonderful to discover the how those inside the judicial system see their work and the complicated challenges they meet in their profession. It is nice to discover your decency. Kind regards, Nancy Frey

%d bloggers like this: