Shattered Glass Ceilings
For Trish Smitson and Missy Wright at Thompson Hine, being a woman hasn’t stunted their professional — or personal — growth one bit
Published in 2004 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 27, 2003
Updated on July 31, 2015
Women in the law are not the rarities they used to be, but how are they doing in the legal world’s power circles? More women are graduating from law school than ever before, making up nearly half of all associates entering law firms in 2002. But the numbers drop sharply when counting how many women reach the upper echelon of law firms. Only 15 percent of partners at Ohio’s largest firms are women, and female managing partners are considerably fewer. Despite the statistics weighing heavily against them, two women at Thompson Hine, Patricia (Trish) Mann Smitson and Elizabeth (Missy) B. Wright, have emerged as two leading attorneys in Ohio — and still have managed to raise their families, stay active in their communities and do what they love.
Ohio’s First Lady of Law
Asthe first woman in Ohio to become managing partner of a major law office and the firm’s first female partner elected to the board of directors, Trish Smitson has the professional résumé of a true legal pioneer. But when you meet her, put away any preconceived notions of the tough-talking, hard-asnails attorney who charges her way full speed ahead to the top. Instead, Trish Smitson comes off as — and she really is — a sweet, motherly lady, her elegant suit and corner office the only visible signs of her professional status.
When she joined Thompson Hine’s Cincinnati office as a partner in 1993, Smitson knew the firm had what she calls “a positive attitude toward women.” But she also knew “it was important for women to have leadership roles in the firm. I wanted a woman to have those responsibilities — but it didn’t have to be me.” In 2001, Thompson Hine decided it should be her, so she was promoted to partner-incharge of the firm’s Cincinnati office. “We want the leader of our office to be able to help us build our presence in the community, and Trish’s involvement in the Cincinnati community will help us achieve that goal,” says David Hooker, the firm’s partner-in-charge. “She is a strong lawyer, and our personnel respect her as a leader. She has a good style with lawyers and staff, and she works well as a manager of our office.” Smitson oversees the Cincinnati office’s 140 employees and leads the Corporate Transactions & Securities group, specializing in the student loan industry.
Growing up, the Northern Kentucky native had no designs on a brilliant law career. On graduating from the University of Cincinnati (UC) in 1967 with a history degree, she married and had two children (“I was very traditional,” she says). As many women did at that time, Smitson stayed home to raise her family while her husband worked outside the home. But when her husband died and she was left with two children, ages 1 and 4, to support, Smitson decided to go back to school — this time for a law degree. She graduated in 1977 from UC’s College of Law and worked part-time until both of her children were in school. “It’s always a challenge,” she says.“I worked very hard, but I needed a good support system,” which included her parents who lived nearby, plus day care and after-school activities.
As her children grew older, she continued building her career. In 1986, she married Walter Smitson, who lived in her neighborhood and attended her church. The two were introduced by mutual friends. She describes her husband as “very supportive, and the epitome of empowering people and women.”Walter, a psychology professor at UC, describes his wife with equal admiration and respect. It is “her ability to engage everybody she comes in contact with” that propelled her to the top of her profession, he says. “She has amazing retention, because she’s actually interested in each person she comes across.”
Empowering others to succeed, rather than competing against them to win, is one of Smitson’s trademarks. “Especially for female associates, she helps to encourage the belief that they can be leaders at our firm and have just as much influence as the men,” says Susan Ballard Salyer, an associate at Thompson Hine who works with Smitson. “It is obvious that her peers, including her male peers, really respect her as an attorney and a leader. It is very helpful to see that type of role model.”
Despite her busy work schedule, with her children grown and living on their own, Smitson has found time to devote to community efforts. She serves on the boards of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati and Downtown Cincinnati Inc., to name a few of her community volunteer positions. But her face really lights up when she talks about her work with the YWCA of Cincinnati. She joined the board of trustees in 1989 and was elected president in 1993, the same year she was hired at Thompson Hine. “Trish believes in our mission — it is her own creed,” says YWCA Director Charlene Ventura. “She is an advocate for human dignity and equality for all people.” During her time with the organization, Smitson co-chaired a $7.3 million capital campaign to renovate two shelters for battered women and the YWCA’s historic headquarters in downtown Cincinnati. Now she chairs the YWCA’s Rising Stars program, which she helped start to provide a mentoring experience for women under 40.
At this point in her life, Smitson is relishing both her personal and professional successes. “We have a wonderful time together,” she says of her husband. “We both enjoy our careers, we love our home and our kids are grown. This is about as good as it gets.”
Fighting to Win
In the opposite corner of the state, at Thompson Hine’s Cleveland office, Missy Wright has spent the last two decades developing a reputation as one of the most formidable corporate litigators in Ohio. The world’s leading manufacturers show up at her office door based on that reputation, garnered by wins for clients such as Goodrich, Ford, Honda, Toyota, Duracell, Braun, Stihl and Gillette. In November 2002, she became the first woman in all of Northeast Ohio to be admitted as a fellow in the exclusive American College of Trial Lawyers.
What drives her to such professional heights? A great love of law — and the challenges and diversity of product liability litigation in particular. From the discovery phase to the final verdict, the investigative, storytelling aspect of litigating cases thrills her: “It’s why I became a lawyer,” she says.
Missy Wright didn’t know any lawyers growing up. In fact, she doesn’t even remember what first sparked her interest in the profession. “I just always remember wanting and planning to be a lawyer,” she says.
Wright was raised in Wheeling, W.V., graduating from the College of William and Mary in 1981 with a degree in government. She immediately headed to Duke University School of Law, and it was during her law school years that she discovered Thompson Hine. While interning at a law firm in Pittsburgh, Wright says one of the partners there encouraged her to interview at Thompson Hine, which she did. The firm seemed to her a “welcoming place and a supportive environment,” and she really liked the people she met there. Upon graduating from Duke in 1984, Wright moved to Cleveland to become an associate at Thompson Hine.
The firm’s managing partner, David Hooker, has watched Wright’s career develop during the last 19 years. “I am proud of the way that she has learned the skills of putting a case together and trying it,” he says. ”Missy learned by doing: She had the opportunity to work with several partners in the firm, and she always was willing to tackle any case. I think that is what has made her what she is today — fearless and tenacious.”
Her ability to persuade juries to her client’s way of thinking is one of her great strengths as a litigator. Rather than get “emotional,” she tries to act “more reserved,” she says. “I think if you come on too aggressively, it can alienate a jury.” Wright’s husband, F. Howard Mandel, a former transactional lawyer, occasionally likes to sit in the courtroom to watch her (Mandel is now a private equity fund manager). “While she is always polite, the momentum shift in the courtroom is palpable when she impeaches or ‘out-techs’ the other side’s expert witness,” he says. “On one such occasion, a representative of Missy’s client was sitting in the back with me. I had to quiet him because he got so excited during Missy’s undoing of the other side’s expert testimony that he resembled a fan at a prize fight.”
Wright gratefully acknowledges the guidance and support she received from her more experienced colleagues early in her career. Just three months after she was hired at Thompson Hine, she was working with senior partners and trying cases. “I remember the date: December 10, 1984. I’m in court — boy, that just gets your adrenaline going,” she says, recalling her first court case. Now she tries to give younger associates those same opportunities. Jennifer Mingus Mountcastle is one of the firm’s associates who regularly works with Wright.“Working with Missy is a constant learning experience,” Mountcastle says. “She takes her role as a mentor to young lawyers very seriously and is always looking for opportunities to train them and give them as much experience as she can give them as early as possible in their careers. She expects much of you, but she is always encouraging and quick to give praise where it is due.”
But for all the cases she’s won and her impressive professional acclaim, her recent entry into motherhood stands out in her mind as her biggest accomplishment. She and her husband traveled to China in 2003 and adopted twin girls, now 2 years old.“That was the best thing we ever did,” she says. For the first few months after they brought Annie and Bea to the United States, Wright worked from home while she got to know her new daughters and helped them adjust. A nanny took over child care during the day when Wright went back to the office full-time.
Wright somehow also manages to find the time to volunteer for several community organizations in the Cleveland area, including the Junior League of Cleveland and the Bellflower Center for Prevention of Child Abuse. Nearest to her heart, though, is her work as a trustee for the Alzheimer’s Association.
So what’s next for Missy Wright? Aside from raising her daughters, she plans to continue doing what she does best. “I don’t really aspire to an administrative role,” she says. “I love practicing law.”
Ohio Women at Law
Thirty years ago, women represented a small slice of Ohio’s lawyers, but today they constitute a substantial chunk of the legal work force. Women are certainly faring better at Ohio’s law schools and firms, but they haven’t made as big a dent in the upper reaches of their profession.
“Women have become much more accepted in the profession during the past 30 years,” says David Hooker, managing partner of Thompson Hine, Ohio’s second largest law firm. “We see more women partners and more women in leadership positions in law firms. On the client side, we see more women in general counsel positions and more women in other senior executive positions; and there are more women serving as judges. In the 1970s, it might have been a point of interest if a woman was identified as the lead partner on a transaction or a case, but that is no longer the case today.”
Women attending law school in Ohio won’t be in the minority much longer. On average, about 45 percent of students enrolled in the state’s nine law schools are women, according to enrollment figures stated in The Princeton Review. That’s a bit low in contrast to a national average of 48 percent, according to the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession. In some cases, women remain in the minority; at Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law, for example, women make up 40 percent of the student body.At other schools, women actually outnumber men, for example, at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, where 53 percent of the student body are women.
Ohio’s law firms also are hiring female law school graduates in droves.An analysis of the male/female ratios (according to the 2003 National Association for Law Placement Directory of Legal Employers) in the offices of Ohio’s 10 largest law firms showed that women make up an average of nearly 44 percent of all associates. That figure is slightly higher than the national average of 41.7 percent, according to the ABA. The Cincinnati office of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister has the greatest proportion of women among its associates with a whopping 56.1 percent. Female associates also outnumber their male counterparts at Frost Brown Todd’s Ohio offices (51.6 percent). Most of the other firms in the top 10 hovered in the 40s. The top 10 firm with the lowest percentage of female associates is the Cleveland office of Calfee, Halter & Griswold (29.6 percent).
A sharp drop-off of female representation within law firms shows up at the partner level. “Women still remain vastly underrepresented in the positions of greatest status and economic reward,” says Stacie Lindley Baker, an associate at Reminger & Reminger in Cleveland. Where women make up nearly half of larger firms’ associates, they represent only about 15 percent of partners at Ohio firms. That’s 1 percent lower than the national average, according to the ABA — but it’s an improvement over a decade ago, when women made up 10.6 percent of partners. Ohio’s top 10 firm with the highest percentage of female partners is Baker & Hostetler (20.5 percent), which has offices in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland. A close second is the Cincinnati office of Dinsmore & Shohl (20 percent). The big firm with the smallest percentage of women as partners is Frost Brown Todd (12.3 percent).
Why aren’t the majority of female associates moving up to higher positions? Many put their careers on hold temporarily or permanently to have children and spend time with their families. But beyond the obvious, Reminger points to other factors that employers can control, such as a lack of mentors for female lawyers, inflexible schedules and discouragement at the lack of advancement prospects.“Law firms and corporations that want to be successful need to focus on recruitment, retention and advancement of women,” she says.
One organization that is working to promote Ohio women’s advancement in the legal profession is the Ohio Women’s Bar Association (OWBA). Formed in 1991, it was the first state bar association to bring together women and men lawyers interested in issues that uniquely affect women. OWBA members are eligible for discounts on the association’s programs, are listed in an annual members directory and receive a quarterly newsletter of reports on legislative activity throughout Ohio and articles of interest to women attorneys. For more information about OWBA, visit www.owba.org, call (440) 582-2769 or write to 9705 State Road, North Royalton, OH 44133.