Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them: Featuring Penny Berger of Lincoln NE

Bio for this weeks Superwoman JD: Penny Berger received her Bachelors and Masters degrees from Columbia University.  She then went on to complete her PhD from the University of Chicago, followed by a J.D. from the University of Nebraska.  After graduating from law school at the top of her class and participating as associate editor of her law review, Penny Berger took a job with Rembolt Ludtke, LLP and became one of the first women to make partner in Lincoln, Nebraska.  After 29 years of private practice, she was asked to become the Dean of University College at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, where she positively influenced the future generation of leaders.  Now Penny is “retired” but involved in many profession activities such as Volunteer Staff Attorney for the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Pro Se Project of the Nebraska Bar Association and Legal Services of Nebraska.  She is also a tutor for at risk law students at the University of Nebraska.  These are just a few of her community involvements.  As you can see, she keeps busier than most people with a full time job and is a true community leader and mentor. 
1. How has being a woman affected your career or legal education?
I know it sounds crazy today, but when I went to law school, gender had not yet become a protected class under the Constitution.  Professors felt free to say sexist things openly in class (“Women can never be trial laywers”—Roger Henderson); employers asked the most personal questions at job interviews (“Are you on birth control?”) and clients didn’t have any idea how to treat you and if they didn’t know you, often mistook you for clerical staff.
In the end, I don’t think my education suffered but I do believe that as a woman, there were fewer opportunities in private practice.  My firm was simply not a place women could flourish. We all started out of the gate with the same treatment, but over time, the differences emerged and grew greater.  I was never really admitted into the fraternity at my own firm and it took very special men to be able to take advice and counsel from a woman.  I am not saying none of them existed, but they were not the norm. 
     Some of the particular problems:
a. It is so true that business comes from personal relationships and as a woman I just had fewer chances to establish those relationships.  I didn’t play golf (and wouldn’t have been included in men’s foursomes even if I did); I didn’t hunt, etc. etc. etc.
b. I was at the edge of the cusp in Nebraska.  As a result I had no role models and no mentors, in or out of the firm.  I made a lot of stupid mistakes.
c. I received a lot of really bad advice, some of it malicious, but some of it because no one really knew how to advise a woman.

2. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started practicing law?
a. To become active in the bar, rather than putting so much emphasis on the community.
b. To learn to play golf.

3. What do you think the legal profession can do to increase the number of senior level females?
a. I am not sure I have any answers for this.  Until women can find the same kind of fulfillment in the jobs, they will continue to leave as fast as they can.
b. I think the issues are societal, not just professional.

4. Being a first year attorney anywhere is tough.  How do you think young female attorneys can really hone their skills in their first few years?
a. The same way men do: practice, practice, practice.
b. Don’t be afraid of failure or feedback.  No one is perfect.  No one expects you to be.

5. Our profession is male dominated.  How can young women balance being feminine and professional at the same time?  I meet many women that simply act like one of the boys; I do not think that is the solution.  Do you have any advice for handling social situations, outings with clients, etc.?
I read an article about the most influential women in America, and in doing so, I was struck by how many of them were not afraid to use their femininity and sex appeal to supplement and complement their intellectual and other, less controversial, abilities.  I am not saying they slept their way to the top, but I am saying they didn’t hesitate to flirt and dress femininely and be clearly different from men.  Maybe we have been brain washed to think we have to be neutered to be successful and really professional.

6. There is a perception that senior female attorneys think that they had it tough and so should you.  Do you think that this sentiment is true?  If so, do you think there is value in figuring things out on your own like women before you had to?
I can’t speak for others, but I think requiring young women to go through the same junk we did, would be stupid and self-defeating.  We will never move forward if everyone has to repeat the experience of those who go before.  What is the point of gaining wisdom and insight if you don’t pass it on?

7. What advice do you have for young female attorneys looking for a mentor?  Do you feel that there is added value in finding a female mentor?  What should they be looking for in a mentor, and what can they do to make themselves someone you would want to mentor? 
I don’t know that young women should have ONLY women mentors, but do thing they should have an older woman to turn to about some stuff.  Picking a mentor is like picking a lawyer—or any other professional.  You choose someone you are comfortable with, who’s style you like, and whom you think is successful.  Mentors will respond the same way—they will open up to someone they feel comfortable with.

8. We all have to make sacrifices for our careers, what sacrifices have you made and which would you make again?
I gave up friend time with other women . . . at least when I was young.  I never had any free time.  I never had any play-time. I would do it again—but I would want more in return.

9. Every female lawyer has a story, a moment when she felt that things in this profession had to change.  Can you tell me about your moment?  How has it shaped your actions since?
I was never aware of sexism . . . I always felt that if something didn’t go my way, it was because something was wrong with me.  That the slights I suffered (within my own firm) happened on a personal level, not because I was a woman.  That is the insidious effect that discrimination has on its object:  it preys on your self-image and self-confidence.  It was many years before I realized that all the women (or at least most of them) who were in my position were suffering the same fate and feeling the same way I was.  For me, it was a growing awareness, not one single thing. 

10. Men still get paid more and get promoted faster.  What advice do you have for young women to help them accelerate their careers?
Don’t work for men.  Go out on your own as soon as you can.  Even if it takes many years.

11. What are your interests/hobbies outside of the legal practice?  How important do you think those interests/hobbies have been in maintaining some work life balance?
I have hobbies now that I never had time for during my working years.  But I did play bridge once a month with non-lawyer friends and exercised regularly.  Outside interests and friends are essential to staying sane as is regular exercise, enough sleep and good nutrition.

12. What has changed the most and the least since you started practicing law?  How have these changes affected you?
I get to sleep until I wake up, instead of having to set three alarms; I get to do things because I want to, instead of because I have to; and I don’t have to worry about other people’s problems.  But I do feel somewhat marginalized.  I was used to having people need my opinion, or my input.  That changes when you retire.

13. If you could go back, what would you have done differently in how you approached your legal education and career?
I would have been less worried about making mistakes in the practice; more courageous about doing things that I didn’t know how to do.  Although, it’s hard to give yourself permission to “learn” on someone else’s project . . .

14. What is one change you would like to see in the legal profession in the next 20 years?
I hope that we can make legal services available at reasonable prices to all who need representation.  I think the profession is going the way of the medical profession and pricing legal services out of the reach of most people.  This isn’t a gender issue, but it’s crucial to the entire profession.

15. If you could give one piece of advice to new female lawyers, what would it be?

Bio for the author of the column: Noha Sidhom is a proud graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law.  Before attending law school, Noha interned on Capitol Hill for the Honorable Charles Timothy Hagel and went on to campaign for Senate candidate Peter Ricketts.  During law school, she clerked at Husch Blackwell Sanders, formerly Blackwell Sanders.  She also did an internship at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Enforcement and an internship at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where she is now an attorney in the Office of General Counsel.  Noha is licensed in New York and New Jersey, and currently resides with her husband in Washington, D.C.

A Message from the Author: This column is a Q&A with senior level female attorneys offering advice and mentorship to young female lawyers.  The questions below were sent to the interviewees and responses have not been edited for content.  The advice, experiences, personalities, and approaches of these women are extremely diverse and more importantly very useful to future generations of female attorneys.  I hope this column will offer helpful advice, and inspire healthy discussions.  I have an exciting lineup of female leaders in the profession, but if you have someone you would like to nominate, or you yourself would like to be interviewed, feel free to email me at

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