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Women Pioneers Teach Us a Thing or Two

If you’re a woman lawyer or administrator—or even if you’re a male attuned to diversity—try for a moment to imagine what life in the law industry was like for a woman two or even three decades ago.  

Several Georgia pioneers, now in their late forties to late-sixties, don’t have to use their imagination, as they were there.  

At that time, the term “diversity” hadn’t even been coined yet.  Support for women now is light years away from what it was then, and back then, there was no one around to tell women how to juggle a family and a career in law.  Yes somehow, these women overcame all the obstacles to make it in what was then a man’s world.

They are all accomplished lawyers now and are understandably serving as role models to younger women.  Several are also real-life mentors to other up-and-coming female attorneys.

The youngest, Jill A. Pryor, has been voted one of Georgia’s top lawyers for 2011.  

And as great as it is that things are different for women lawyers today, a few of these pioneers see some of the same troublesome sets of issues…although the telltale signs are harder to discern.   

The Fulton County Daily Report gave voice to these women who ventured into unknown territory many years ago.  Pryor, 47, a partner at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, said that one of the things that made it hard for the few women that were around then was that it went against the grain to develop a win/win mentality.  

“We lawyers are so competitive, particularly in a law firm environment, and it goes against human nature to help those whom you perceive to be in competition with you. You see women who are superstars, and then one day they just opt out,” she said. “It’s easy to say that they didn’t really want to practice law, but there are much more subtle and complex factors at work. You have to look beyond the easy answer.”  

Chilton Davis Varner, 68 and a partner at King & Spalding, learned how to be a trial lawyer from male mentors, but would like to see women stepping up to the plate to help fellow women.  She also advises against being too hard on yourself.  “You never stop making mistakes. You just become better at finding and correcting them before others do.”

Leah Ward Sears, a partner at Schiff Hardin and a former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, tells women to, as she did, learn to find their own way. When push comes to shove, she says, turn to your own gender.  “It was always women,” she says, “who…had my back.”

Carol W. Hunstein, the highest-ranking judge in the state, says another judge, Judge Sara Doyle, heard her speak once, and that was enough to inspire her to run for the Georgia Board of Appeals. “”It really does encourage women and minorities when a woman or minority succeeds,” she says.

“Stick together. Take care of each other.  Become the good old girls network,” said Sara  S.Turnipseed, 63, a mother of three daughters and a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.  She believes that it’s still all too easy to “ruin a woman’s reputation” in law. To remedy that, when she’s pointing something out to a younger woman who “needs to sharpen her skills”, she won’t announce it in front of others.  Instead, she’ll go into her office with the younger woman, close the door, and talk to her in private.  

One thing all these women agreed on is that women helping women on the way up has enormous trickle-down effects. As Pryor says : “…the more of us there are who are successful, the more everyone – [and] the profession — benefits.”  To read more, go to: http://bit.ly/hmBL60

-EM

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