Mel Sullivan

We will be the women who shift the balance

Two things struck me during my first year in law school. The first was that every individual in a class hypothetical, whether judge, victim or villain, was referred to by a feminine pronoun. The second was that the preferred conservative dress for female attorneys was a skirt suit. There was also an accompanying rumor that judges had ordered attorneys out of court for transgressing this unwritten rule. This seeming contradiction codified the contradiction I saw within the law itself: a profession professing to act in the interest of equality and justice while at the same time being dominated on every level by one gender.

While some would say that this is just the way of the world and we should be resigned to it, I have never been reluctant to take up a fight, no matter how futile. I believe that this attitude stems from being surrounded by examples of strong women. My mother emigrated to this country at the age of sixteen with her mother, father and two younger brothers. Being the only person in the family with a tenuous but working grasp of English, she was responsible for negotiating the purchase of the family home in Philadelphia. She has since completed her Masters in Learning Disabilities and continues to be the strong center of our family and a constant inspiration for me.

My first introduction to the law was again at the prompting of another strong woman. During my sophomore year at college, I began to think of the study of law. In order to gain insight into the profession, I called every law office in my home town, asking if they needed summer help. Only one attorney returned my call. She was a woman who had managed to do it all--be an attorney with her own practice, a colonel in the Air National Guard, an active participant in local politics as well as a mother. She agreed to take me on for the summer as a law clerk. One event lead to another, I ended up replacing her full time secretary.

The summer I worked for her was the best of times and the worst of times. While I ended up writing many memos for court and countless client letters, I also ended most days stressed to the ends of my hair. The attorney expected much of herself and thus expected much of me, and looking back, I only now realize the important lessons of self reliance and perseverance that she ended up teaching me that summer.

I finished college, graduating with highest honors in English. I was the recipient of various awards for leadership in my extracurricular activities, both in student government and my part time position organizing student volunteers for various children and senior services non-profit organizations. I decided to pursue law, thinking that my leadership and energy would be well suited to the profession.

And then I get to law school--where the professors are all men and the unwritten dress code mandated skirts. My classes and my case books where filled with the masculine voices of the law--arguing with each other, relying on each other, telling each other that their opinions merely "beg the question"... I was taken aback. Where were my strong women?

Then, I found them. The first was a person familiar to me from my undergraduate education. Sandra Day O'Connor retired months before I began law school, and only after reading her majority opinions and dissents in Constitutional Law did I realize what a loss the American judicial system had suffered. Her forthright opinions regarding protection of personal autonomy reminded me why I went to law school in the first place. Her strength was one to which I could aspire.

The second example of female strength came from an unexpected source. Looking up in class one day, I noticed my classmates. For the 2006-2007 school year, the 1L class at Boston University was over half female. There they were all around me--raising their hands, challenging each other and bringing their strength and intelligence to bear on the work of the masculine minds of the past.

At that moment, it occurred to me that no matter how unbalanced the profession of law had been or was currently, I along with the strong women of my generation would become the attorneys general and superior court justices that would shift the balance, and when my daughter went into law, she would see our names in the case books and know that there was justice in the world.

She would also be able to wear anything she liked.

Write a comment

Please login to comment

Remember Me

Join Us

Contribute to our blog and join the discussion.

CREATE AN ACCOUNT

Newsletter

Subscribe to receive regular updates, news, and events from Ms. JD.

Connect with us

Follow or subscribe