Whitney Hill

Mentoring—> Sisterhood—> Supreme Court?

I cannot help but wish that three or four more women were sitting on the US Supreme Court. This will happen. A clutch of women Supreme Court Justices would be very visible role models, but until then we can celebrate the women lawyers who are federal judges, state supreme court judges, civil rights lawyers, politicians, and partners in law firms. I think that the power and influence of positive role models cannot be understated. In that vein, a woman in the legal profession needs a mentor to give wisdom in the form of cautionary tales, guidance and advice. Role models are inspiring but a mentor with whom one has personal contact is invaluable in its practicality. This is what successful women lawyers have told me, for example Judge Carolyn King of the 5th Circuit and Teresa Dahmus of the Texas Attorney General's office.

I noticed that during the first semester of my 1L year, when students were not shy about sizing up their classmates to each other, the perceived geniuses of the class were always men. This trend emerged, despite the shining contributions in class of several very impressive women. The women, it appeared to me, were simply overlooked. If we weren't being overlooked, we were being noticed for the wrong reasons. One of the brightest people in our class, a woman with a loud voice, was vilified by others, particularly other women, for being too vocal in class. From overhearing conversations before and after class, it was apparent to me that women were judged based on their clothing and hair-styles, rather than based on their minds. Women even belittled themselves so that they could not be accused of being an intellectual or even smart. At the same time, our male professors were admired openly for their outstanding intellects. I felt like I was trapped in a time warp. My professors, nearly all men, were not themselves the source of the problems. Rather, the students alone seemed to be unconsciously forgetful that women are men's intellectual equals even in a traditionally male profession.

Contradictions to this sentiment abound in law school, of course. I do not have to look hard to find successful, ambitious, unapologetically intelligent women around me. For example, our LRAP student group was led by two extremely talented women, not because we voted for them, but because their leadership of our impromptu group was so natural. The new law school student government president, a woman, beat out two gentlemen in the election. Also, the 2007-2008 masthead listing the editorial board of our prestigious law review is heavy with x chromosomes.

Women have fantastic contributions to make but sometimes we collectively stand in our own way by giving in to the status quo. Once we leave behind society's confused and contradictory expectations of us we can achieve in untold ways and in greater numbers.

Two lessons stand out for me after this first year experience. Primarily, as always, women must gain a sense of sisterhood and look out for each other (as we did in elementary school) in order to continue to break boundaries and break down stereotypes. Secondly, women law students desperately need women mentors who are working in the legal profession. The low self-esteem and self-doubt that plague even some very successful young women seem to run rampant when under the strain of the first year of law school. The reaction to the stress appeared to be to view other women as competition rather than to mistrust the patriarchal traditions discouraging each of us. Instead of banding together against the subtle yet powerful force of sexism, the women formed exclusive camps or factions, just like in junior high.

I believe that this trend could be weakened by the steady influence of a mentor--a professional woman whose world is based on merit and who is valued by her employer and co-workers for her intelligence. The legal profession is changing. Sheer percentages of women lawyers and law students make it probable that the vestiges of sexism will soon slough off. It helps that law firms are beginning to consider that perhaps more flexibility is needed by all lawyers, who have families and outside commitments. I can encourage the positive changes by supporting my fellow women classmates more steadfastly, by finding a woman mentor to learn from, and by becoming a mentor to a law student when it is my turn.

To achieve the first two goals, I plan to work with the Women's Law Caucus, a student organization, to establish a mentor program with local women attorneys beginning in 2007-2008. Women's fellowship and networking organizations are hugely important, especially in the legal profession, and I am grateful to the women whose forethought led them to establish groups like the Women's Law Caucus. But getting together in the same room is only the first step. The next step is a willingness to recognize the talent and power in the woman next to us and to encourage her in her goals. Our encouragement is especially important--to all women--if her goal is to sit on the US Supreme Court.

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