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'Being Underestimated is Fabulous'

Six attorneys recount the then-and-now of women in the law

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

Published in 2020 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine

By Stephanie Hunt on April 27, 2020


The six attorneys interviewed on the following pages know what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. They blazed their trails in the ’70s. Four were the first woman hired by their firms, Susan M. Smythe was the first woman in Charleston to make partner and Alice Paylor was the fourth female president of the South Carolina Bar Association. Though their experiences differ, each agrees on one thing: Women, thankfully, are fully ingrained in the legal profession now.

Entering Law: ‘You’re taking a spot that belongs to a man’

Margaret Pope, USC School of Law 1975, Pope Flynn (Columbia), Government Finance: My parents were very egalitarian; education was their main goal. My father said, “I don’t care if you’re a man or woman, get an education so you can support yourself. You never know what can happen.” I come from a family of doctors, so I went to Emory as a pre-med student, but when it came time to dissect a cat in biology class, I realized this wasn’t for me. 

M. Elizabeth Crum, USC School of Law 1973, Burr Forman McNair (Columbia), Health Care: My grandfather and great-grandfather, father and uncle were all lawyers in Denmark, South Carolina, and my mother’s brother was a lawyer. My mother had her master’s in chemistry, so I thought I could be a lawyer or scientist. That said, when I first told my father I wanted to go to law school, he was not so sure about it. He had seen a woman lawyer tell a judge, “I’m sorry, I can’t go to court today, I have to get my hair done,” so that made him dubious.

Alice F. Paylor, USC School of Law 1977, Rosen | Hagood (Charleston), Complex Civil Litigation: When I was in college, my mother insisted I get a teaching certificate because she knew that I would always be able to get a job. I told her I did not want to be a teacher, and that I planned to go to law school. She supported me in that because, after she graduated from college, she had wanted to go to law school. But when her father died, she was unable to go.

Kathy McKinney, USC School of Law 1978, Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd (Greenville), Public Finance: My mother was my role model—she’d been a highly successful British intelligence officer, working in Whitehall with Lord Beaverbrook. She spoke three languages, her roommate was Iris Murdoch, she was about as intellectual as you could be. She met my father, who was from Orangeburg, after World War II, when they were part of the U.N. Multinational Force. So the idea of being a woman and having a career that was something other than being a secretary was expected.

Susan M. Smythe, University of Virginia School of Law 1976, Womble Bond Dickinson (Charleston), Real Estate: I came of age during a feminist wave. I knew I wanted to have a full-time career, but not a traditional woman’s job. My father was a lawyer, and we’d have dinner-table conversations about his cases. He’d lay out my facts, and I’d get to argue my position and then he’d change the facts. I never won an argument with him, but he trained me how to think legally. Even so, both of my parents were opposed to my going to law school. My father said, “You’re taking a spot that belongs to a man. You’re going to have children and not practice, and some poor man isn’t going to get in.” My husband Henry and I were applying to law school together, and my mother feared it would destroy our marriage, that I’d make better grades than Henry and he’d be a poor wimp whose ego couldn’t stand it.

School Days: ‘Sometimes I was the only woman’

Kay Gaffney Crowe, USC School of Law 1975, Barnes Alford Stork & Johnson (Columbia), Civil Litigation: Defense: I had gone to [undergrad] in California, and found law school in South Carolina to be a closed community. There were 10 other women in my class, split among four sections, so sometimes I was the only woman in upper divisions. There was some hostility and sarcastic comments from some classmates, who thought women were not in this for the long haul.

McKinney: We probably had about 20 women out of a couple hundred students in law school. With the exception of one professor, I never felt I was treated differently than anyone else. I felt if I proved myself, how could they jeopardize you? 

Pope: No one in my law school class knew what they were going to do; there was not much mentoring or tutoring. You passed or made the grades you made, and then it was goodbye and good luck.

Paylor: I didn’t even think about the number of women in my class, which was maybe 15% female. I just figured not many women wanted to go to law school. But it was heartening to see how quickly the balance switched. I’d say within four years the class makeup was almost 50% women.

Early Jobs: ‘Can’t they send somebody else?’

Crum: It was only when I started practicing at the attorney general’s office that I realized there was another standard. I was sworn into the bar in November 1973, and that next Monday was assigned to prosecute a fifth-offense DUI. When I got there, the corporal said, “Little lady, can’t they send somebody else to do it?”

Paylor: In law school, most of my classmates were my age, and they accepted women; it wasn’t like you were a sub-human being. When I got to Charleston, I was invited to a women lawyer’s lunch—there were eight of us there. That’s when I figured out that working was going to be a lot different than law school. It was nice to hear what other women were going through, that they were having similar experiences and it wasn’t just me.

Smythe: When I came [to Charleston] there were 10 women lawyers, and all but one were in public service. But I found there was an advantage, in that the men didn’t know what the right protocols were. Do they stand up when I come into the room or not? Do they kiss me on the cheek or do they shake my hand? I’d grown up in a man’s world and found men very predictable, but they didn’t know how to predict me. Strategically, having them be off balance is great. Being underestimated is fabulous—it really, really is. 

Pope: I was so fortunate to be taken under the wing of Mr. Huger Sinkler. I remember once we were with another very well-respected lawyer who was older than Mr. Sinkler, and looked him straight in the eye, and asked him “Is this your paramour?” And Mr. Sinkler said “No, this is my future. She is one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever met, and she is due great respect.” 

Discrimination: ‘One of those’

Pope: I really didn’t experience much discrimination—oddly, I think I was too early. It was more people just not knowing what to do with me rather than to not let me. 

Crum: I found older male lawyers often very condescending. Once, on behalf of the attorney general’s office, I appeared in the courtroom of Judge Timmerman, who was a former governor, and I remember him saying to me, “Ms. Crum, you’re the third generation of Crum lawyers I’ve worked with, and you’re the prettiest.” 

Paylor: I’ve had some lawyers and judges call me “honey” in front of a courtroom full of people. You just have to grin and get through it. I think they thought they were being nice, just good ol’ boy behavior. Once at an event our firm was hosting, another lawyer got up and said, “You all need to bring your wives to these events,” and repeated it a couple of times. So I went up to him afterward and said, “I don’t have a wife. Who am I supposed to bring?” He was embarrassed and profusely apologized. 

Smythe: We ended up going into practice with Henry’s father. Once, I was walking to a hearing with him with the lawyer we were going to argue against—another older, well-respected scion of the legal practice—who was ribbing my father-in-law about hiring me. I ended up arguing the motion, and I beat him. And as we walked back, he turned to my father-in-law and said, “Well maybe I’m going to have to hire one of those.”

Crowe: Still today, at least once or twice a month, I’ll go to take depositions, and come in pushing a rolling cart, and without fail the receptionist says, “Oh, you’re the court reporter.” It’s shocking how often that happens. Judges and lawyers don’t make comments anymore, but it hasn’t really filtered down to the consciousness of some office staff.

Counsel’s Counsel: ‘Mentoring is everything’

McKinney: I was not the first female at McNair; I got there a year and a half after Betsy Van Doren Gray, who was a great role model. I also had males who took me under their wing.

Crum: I worked with Attorney General Dan McLeod, whom I give lots of credit for hiring and promoting women lawyers. As a mentor, he taught me an appreciation and love of law, and the integrity and ethics of law. 

Pope: Mentoring is everything. Once you get your law degree and pass the Bar and get your license, you’re exactly qualified to do nothing. You have to have a mentor to show you the ropes. Mr. Sinkler took me, mentored and educated me from A to Z; he had complete and utter belief in me. Justice Toal was also a role model. She set a fabulous tone for everyone in South Carolina’s legal landscape. It was our first time having a very accomplished woman reach the pinnacle, and I realized if Justice Toal can do it, I can do it.

Paylor: I was the only woman at the Rosen law firm and the first woman they hired, so I didn’t have the luxury of female mentors. But Morris Rosen was also a fabulous mentor to me.

Smythe: There weren’t very many women around to mentor me, to say, “I’ve been here before, let me show you how to do it.” But I had friends from law school and that group of 10 women in Charleston that were support systems. I did, however, have a lot of great male mentors, especially my father-in-law. He told everyone in town that I was the smartest lawyer he’d ever met. It wasn’t true, but it was what I needed—to have this very well-respected lawyer giving me that kind of endorsement.

Paving the Way: ‘I share my mistakes and my strategies’

McKinney: I don’t let the women I work with be invisible. If they’re on the team, after appropriate training and observation of how it’s done, I say, “Let’s transition to you doing it,” and I’m there for support but not there looking over their shoulder.

Crum: I was honored to receive the 2013 Bissell Award from the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association for my work mentoring women. The first thing is inclusion. I’m big on that, on getting them involved in not just legal issues but life. I try to make sure they understand the opportunity they have as a lawyer to give back to the community. 

Paylor: When I served as president of the Bar, I didn’t feel like being a woman was an issue at all. I made a point to encourage the women coming up behind me to run for the office. I’d invite 30 or so women to Lean In events at my house. I learned that we are basically all alike, we have similar fears. I always get way more out of mentoring than they probably got.

Smythe: My ultimate goal when I mentor others is to help them be successful. I’m candid—I share my mistakes, and my strategies. I think women in general have been great at paving the way for others, and doing their share of civic commitments as leaders in the legal community. But I find there’s still an implicit bias. Not too long ago, a lawyer suggested I’d been given an assignment because they needed a woman on the team, and in fact they needed my talents. But he didn’t see it, and he was so foolish as to have said it.

Work-Life Balance: ‘Only  so many balls  you can keep in the air’

Pope: We have two women working in my firm now—one has children and one is newly married. They are very interested in quality of life, which is a term that wasn’t even in my vocabulary. They ask me how I raised three children and commuted all over the state and nothing fell through the cracks. Well, you need help. And today, I think it may be even harder. There’s technology and a lot of things parents and kids are up against today that I did not have to wrestle with. Basically, I think I didn’t know what I couldn’t do.

Crowe: I entered private practice in 1981, as the first female lawyer in the firm, but by the mid-’80s I had a houseful of kids and realized I needed more scheduling predictability; so I stepped back a bit. I didn’t go back to trying malpractice cases in court until my third son went to kindergarten. There are only so many balls you can keep in the air. If there was grumbling about it in the firm, I didn’t hear it. 

Paylor: Having children and a legal practice is really, really hard. I’m not critical of women who make the decision to leave or scale back, but it wasn’t for me. I went back to work a week after my second child was born. I hired a wonderful nanny, and my children have long gone but she’s still with me 30 years later.

Then & Now: ‘You can be yourself’

Crum: When I started practicing, women couldn’t be forceful; you had to smile a lot, grin and bear it. Now you can be yourself. Now, routinely half of the lawyers on a case are women. Sometimes they’re all women. You don’t think about it anymore. When I joined the McNair firm, I remember Governor McNair asking me, “Why are all the best lawyers we are interviewing women?” And I replied, “Governor, it’s because we have to work harder.”

Crowe: I was the first woman to serve as president of the South Carolina  Defense Trial Attorneys’ Association, and feel we’ve made huge strides in becoming more diverse. Jurors are more accepting of women in the courtroom than they were. And I think law firms are as well. Decisions are made more on merit than they were when I came out. It doesn’t feel as much of a good-ol’-boy network as it did. But in the litigation world, there’s still a discrepancy. Law schools are 50/50, but it’s not unusual for me to go to a court roster meeting that’s 80 to 90% male.

Paylor: I would not say it’s an even playing field today. Unfortunately, the good-ol’-boy system is still out there. Now that more and more women are getting into the profession, it’s changing, but I hate to say it—some of them become good ol’ boys, too. 

Smythe: We’ve got female judges and lawyers at all different levels. Clients don’t feel they’re taking a risk by hiring a woman instead of a man, and women and men have figured out that there are lots of ways to have families and practice law. We now have enough women that we have an old girls’ network to counter the old boys’ network.

Not Easy, But Worth It

Advice for women starting out in the legal profession

Pope: Be kind to yourself and know that it’s going to take a ton of work.

McKinney: Absorb and learn all you can about your discipline, your field of law, and learn about the bigger picture. 

Crum: Don’t be scared to try. You can’t be scared to get out there and say, “I can do that.” If you think you can do it, go for it, but don’t be scared to ask for help if you need it.

Crowe: Set realistic goals that balance what you want your life to look like. You’ve got to have a plan, stick with it, reevaluate it, have goals and assess how you are meeting them. Good things aren’t going to happen if you just wing it. 

Paylor: Women can do whatever they want to do—they can work and have kids—it all depends on what you want and are willing to do. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s worth it. I think seeing me as a working mom was actually a pretty good lesson for my children. My son tells me I’m his role model—of course, he’s just trying to butter me up, but still. 

Smythe: Ask for what you want, go for what you want, and don’t compromise your personal values. You’ve got to create a path that’s unique for yourself.

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