Topics included role models, finding time for a family and overcoming sexism and harassment.
The Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association recognized Women’s History Month at its meeting last week at The River Club with a panel discussion of the past, present and future of women lawyers in the local legal community.
The panel comprised Rebecca Berg of Berg Bryant Elder Law Group, Assistant Public Defender Melina Buncome, Kim Clayton of Kim Clayton PA, Lewis Longman Walker shareholder Brenna Durden, Akerman partner Cindy Laquidara and Marks Gray attorney of counsel Mary Love.
Also on the panel were Terrell Hogan Yegelwel partner Leslie Scott Jean-Bart, Paola Parra Harris of Parra Harris Law, Ashley Myers of Ashley Myers PA and Elizabeth White, partner at Sheppard, White, Kachergus & DeMaggio.
The discussion was moderated by Julia Jenae, an attorney and former television reporter in Jacksonville who now is a producer and reporter with Court TV.
She said the first woman lawyer in Florida, Louise Pinnell, was admitted to practice in 1898.
She at first practiced with her father in Bronson, Florida, then moved to Jacksonville in 1901 to practice with Major St. Clair-Abrams, a Civil War veteran and corporate defense lawyer who did a lot of work for railroads.
White said that when she began practicing in Jacksonville in 1989, there weren’t many women lawyers, but two became her role models.
One was the late Circuit Judge Virginia Beverly, who began her career as an assistant U.S. attorney before she was appointed to the bench in 1976.
“She was intelligent, gracious and calm but in control” and “she thought more than she spoke,” White said.
The other was Senior Judge of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Susan Black, a former Duval County and 4th Circuit judge who was appointed to the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, in 1979.
Black was the first female federal judge in the district and was appointed to the 11th circuit appellate court in 1992.
“Now, we take it for granted that we have women judges, but it wasn’t always that way,” said White.
On the topic of what inspires women to enter the law, Terrell Hogan Yegelwel partner Leslie Scott Jean-Bart said for her, it was her grandmother, Mary Singleton, the first woman and first African-American who was elected to City Council.
“She died when I was 8, but she taught me that I could do anything and be anything I wanted to be,” Jean-Bart said.
Taking into account that about 50 percent of women lawyers retire from practice before they reach the age of 50, two panelists commented on possible reasons for early professional departure.
Cindy Laquidara, a partner at Akerman and a former city of Jacksonville general counsel, cited sexism and harassment.
She said based on personal experience, “punch him in the stomach” is an effective response to unwarranted physical contact.
“Don’t put up with it. You don’t need that client if it costs your self-respect,” Laquidara said.
Assistant Public Defender Melina Buncome said she thinks many women leave the profession because it can be a challenge to balance a law career and raising a family.
She’s been a public defender for 21 years and said that she started law school when her daughter was 6 weeks old and finished when her son was 6 months old.
“It’s tough for a woman to be committed to the profession and committed to her family,” Buncome said.
On the subject of diversity, Buncome, an African-American, said was hired in the 4th Circuit Public Defender’s Office because she made up her mind she was getting the job.
“I said I wanted to do it, I asked to do it and I did it,” she said,
“You have to step outside your comfort zone,” Berg said.
Ashley Myers is a sole practitioner who began her career at a law firm that had only one other woman lawyer who, based on her age, wasn’t going to have more children.
“One day, when I was 24 or 25, I asked about the firm’s maternity leave policy,” Myers said.
The response from one of the partners was “if you get maternal, you leave,” she said, then added, “I knew he was joking, but they hadn’t given it much thought, so I started planning my exit.”
Myers said having her own firm allows her to choose her clients and set her schedule to maximize her time at work and at home.
Kim Clayton is a sole practitioner and certified family law mediator. Ten years ago, she was a government attorney who specialized in advocacy for children.
“That was demanding work and long hours,” she said.
Establishing her private practice allowed her to “take the cases I wanted to take and work the hours I wanted to work,” she said.
Attorney Mary Love, of counsel at Marks Gray, said when she came to Jacksonville in 1978, she joined a law firm that had a mentorship program that helped establish her practice. That’s a common trend now, but not 40 years ago.
Love said she worked for a month with each of the six male partners.
“After six months, I had a caseload and knew six different ways of practicing law,” she said.
“Firms need to make an explicit effort to educate and encourage new attorneys to find a passion for their work and a passion for Bar service and community service,” Love said.
The next CLE meeting and lunch on JWLA’s schedule is April 11 when attorney, author and business consultant Wendi Weiner will discuss how lawyers can use social media to build a personal brand.