As career advancement and work-life balance continue to be elusive for women in the profession of law, a group of attorneys have undertaken a new venture. The Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law will identify and address persistent issues facing women in the legal profession by advocating for significant and lasting change. The Center’s ambition is to become a nationally acclaimed institution dedicated to improving the status of all women in law.
Since women attorneys first cracked the “glass ceiling” decades ago, they have made great strides, some ascending to the highest levels in the profession. Along the way, however, many still find that they face pervasive limitations of opportunity or encounter obstacles in their chosen profession. Some leave the practice of law altogether, or seek other career avenues. This reality has been the subject of casual conversations among women in the profession for many years. A group of pioneering women who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in an era when it wasn’t common for women to pursue law as a career began talking about this dilemma in a much different, more purposeful way, fueled by a real determination to fully understand and effectively address the underlying causes of the issues faced by women lawyers. These early conversations ultimately led to the creation of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of law.
Today, the women who founded the Center are giving back to the Law School and leaving a legacy for women with law degrees and for generations of women who are just beginning their path in law—by creating an initiative devoted to success across the entire spectrum of women in law.
“Most of us—the women who came out of the Law School in the seventies—found ourselves being the first at almost anything we did,” said Nina Cortell, ’76, a partner with Haynes and Boone, LLP, in Dallas. Cortell has been widely recognized for her expertise in handling complex appeals during her thirty-year career, and she is a founding member of the Center for Women in Law. “Often we were the first women in our firms. We were the first to seek certain policies such as maternity leave and to deal with the issue of balancing our legal practices with raising our children. We also led the way in working with a judiciary that wasn’t always used to women in the courtroom and corporations that weren’t used to women in the boardroom.” Cortell and the Center’s founders are trailblazers who truly paved the way for the generations that followed.
Cathy Lamboley, ’79, spent three decades in the legal department at Shell Oil headquarters in Houston, eventually advancing to vice president and general counsel—the first woman to achieve this distinction at Shell. Now retired, Lamboley is also a founding member of the Center. For a woman in a predominantly male industry, the path was not easy. She played an integral role in changing the culture at Shell, contributing to the company’s diversity and inclusiveness initiatives in the 1990s. Lamboley emphasizes that there are still gains to be made: “The numbers for women in the profession as a whole have remained pretty static, if not gotten worse. And there is a real shortage of women advancing to leadership positions.”
Attorney Hannah Brenner, the Center’s first executive director, confirms that the path for women in the legal profession remains challenging “We know that women now enter the legal profession in equal proportion to men, and some have ascended to the highest positions in the field: Supreme Court justice, law school dean, attorney general, managing partner, general counsel, senator, governor, and presidential candidate,” Brenner said. “More and more are leaving practice—or exiting the workforce entirely—as career advancement opportunities and work-life balance continue to be elusive. Those who stay are finding fewer opportunities for advancement. The percentage of women in leadership positions has plateaued far below the point of gender parity.”
“This is an issue that has been important to me for a really long time,” said Sylvia de Leon, ’76, the first woman partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, in the Washington, D.C., office, and a founding member of the Center. “We need to recognize the costs to institutions, firms, and companies in terms of lost productivity when women drop out of the workforce. I think this is a cost that society simply can’t continue to afford. There are enormous numbers of women coming out of law school. We’ve reached the fifty percent mark in the top twenty law schools in the country. But the percentage of those women who remain in the career of law is significantly lower. The easy answer has always been that women leave because they want to pursue having a family, or a different area of interest, but if you really talk to the women who have left the profession, many of them describe the hurdles they faced or the lack of opportunity.”
“We envision the Center serving women in several ways,” Cortell explained. “It will be a resource for women who are law students or who have graduated and are in the profession. We will also work with law firms, businesses, and academia to help assess and encourage the advancement of women in whatever paths they choose after they graduate from law school.”
With its doors now open at the Law School and its first executive director in place, the Center has recently unveiled plans for its inaugural Women’s Power Summit on Law and Leadership, a gathering of the country’s top lawyers, scheduled for the spring of 2009. The Summit will be a historic gathering of leading women in the law, anchored by the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor and convened by a distinguished Advisory Board comprising the top lawyers in America, from eminent scholars whose research focuses on issues like gender equity and work-life balance to managing partners at large law firms to high-ranking women in politics and the judiciary. The Summit will be chaired by Diane Yu, former Chair of the ABA Commission on Women.
“The Summit will bring together women lawyers at the highest levels within the various sectors of the profession, to gain access to the most cutting-edge research, share strategies, and develop solutions, culminating in the drafting of a platform—the Austin Manifesto—that calls for specific, concrete steps to tackle the stubborn obstacles facing women in the legal profession today,” Yu said.
Brenner added that Summit participants will be encouraged to continue their association with the Center, returning as leaders-in-residence and serving as faculty for an ongoing leadership academy.
In conjunction with this historic event, the Center has taken on a major research project, gathering data, articles, and other scholarly work on the issues facing women in the profession for what will be the most comprehensive collection of its kind. The Center will work with law students and practicing lawyers, with the goal of addressing inequalities and securing meaningful opportunities for women in law.
A senior partner in the litigation department of Fulbright & Jaworski, LLP, in Houston, Linda Addison, ’76, has enjoyed a longtime relationship with UT Law and is a Trustee Emeritus of the University of Texas Law School Foundation. She has been a true catalyst in conceiving and implementing the Center and in recruiting other founders. “It became clear to me after speaking with women early on who supported the law school and had a relationship with it that rather than simply write a check, they really wanted to leave a legacy for those who followed,” she said. “The Center’s concept really resonated with the women I talked to.”
In an evolution of traditional philanthropy, the idea for the Center started with only a few women, among them Addison, Cortell, de Leon, and Laura Hagen, ’76, but that initial group has today grown to include more than thirty founders from across the country, all of whom have contributed personally and financially to make the Center a reality. “Our first core group of about five or six founders were all from the Law School Class of 1976,” de Leon said.
In one of his last acts as Dean, Bill Powers gave the green light to the Center, and the Center gathered momentum under the leadership of Dean Larry Sager. “When I was first introduced to twenty-five or so of the founders of the Center at lunch one afternoon, I realized that they constituted an extraordinary group of talented, successful, and generous women,” Sager said. “They are a remarkable resource for a community of ideas and constructive projects like UT Law, and their Center is going to be a remarkable resource for the diverse enterprise we call the legal profession. I am a great fan and supporter of the Center.”
Addison added that once word got out about the Center, the phone started ringing. “People heard what we were doing and called and said, “I really want to be a part of this, and more than that, I want to help. This included women lawyers who were not even UT Law graduates.”
“The Center’s founders have each made a significant financial contribution to turn the concept into a reality,” said de Leon. “I think that’s very important—when we announced the Center, we could say that it was built on the financial contributions of women.”
Supporting the Center isn’t just about giving money to the Law School. It is also about giving time and expertise to the project. “One of the remarkable things about this undertaking is the level of donor involvement,” said Carla Cooper, the Law School’s assistant dean for alumni relations and development.
“We have worked to build consensus around how to move forward with planning the Center from the first day. This new model of philanthropy is not, perhaps, the most conventional,” Cooper said. “It’s unique and it is the one we’re committed to.”
“You reach a point in your life when it’s time to share the lessons you’ve learned in meaningful ways that can, hopefully, impact a broader group—perhaps even a whole generation,” Addison said. “I not only hope but expect that the Center will level the playing field for women who choose to use their law degrees both inside the profession and in other ways. I—we—expect it to change the world.”