'In Different Shoes'

Five Texas women follow the ‘path through the jungle’ carved by predecessors like Sandra Day O’Connor

Published in 2019 Texas Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on September 6, 2019


By the 1980s, women were a solid presence in law schools, firms and courtrooms. But the challenges facing them in the male-dominated field did not vanish overnight. “I have walked in for depositions and heard: ‘Are you the court reporter?’” says Jane Webre, with Scott Douglass & McConnico in Austin. “No male lawyer has ever been asked that. Every female lawyer who does litigation has been asked that—100%.”

Not long ago, Webre attended a speech by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who, she says, “cut a path through the jungle with a machete.” O’Connor’s advice? “Never forget, but never remember, that you’re a woman.” Says Webre: “That is absolutely perfect. Just go about your business, do your work, but be cognizant of the fact that you’re in different shoes than those who may sort of run things.”

Here are stories of five Texas lawyers who wear those shoes well.

Why Law?

Phylis J. Speedlin, senior counsel, ADR, Dykema Gossett (San Antonio), St. Mary’s University School of Law 1983: My mother raised five children, two of whom were significantly handicapped, and she was able to do it on a waitress’ salary. She was very intelligent but never had the opportunity, because of her generation, to go to college herself. I wanted a career. I wanted something more than my mother had been able to accomplish. I wanted to be my own boss, and ultimately that led me to the law.

Hilda C. Galvan, partner-in-charge, Intellectual Property, Jones Day (Dallas), University of Texas at Austin School of Law 1993: I studied engineering and I worked for an attorney during that time, at first as a receptionist and then a legal assistant. Then I graduated and worked as an engineer for five years. After [that], I went to law school. I just thought it was really exciting to be in the courtroom. It took a little longer than I thought.

Speedlin 1983: Enduring the final years of Vietnam, I volunteered to join the Army Nurse Corps, and that brought me to Brooke Army Medical Center here in San Antonio. While my husband was in medical school, I worked at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital. By the time he was ready to graduate, it was 1979-’80—the first time I had enough money that I could select what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was walking into the VA hospital, and I’m an administrator. I don’t think a woman will ever be, or won’t be anytime soon, the head of a military VA hospital. I’m going through all the careers that I could [pursue] and thought, “Well, I could be a lawyer,” and immediately the next thought was, “Oh, no, you can’t; only men are lawyers.” And that thought so shocked me that it forced me to stand still where I was walking. It challenged me and I thought, “Well, darn it, if I want to be a lawyer, I’m going to try.”

Cynthia Day Grimes, senior counsel, Civil Litigation: Defense, Clark Hill Strasburger (San Antonio), SMU Dedman School of Law, 1975: Junior year of college, I went up to American University in D.C. and worked for congressmen and studied government. Everybody around me was going to go to law school, and I thought, “Law school, hmm.” I was not scared to enter the area of law, despite it being a new field for women. Maybe I was naïve, but I was excited about the challenge and the opportunities to help people. My parents wanted me to get a teaching certificate, just in case … but I did not want to be a teacher. [They] fully supported that decision after I made it and as I entered law school.

Jane Webre, partner, Appellate, Scott Douglass & McConnico (Austin), University of Texas at Austin School of Law 1989: I worked at the Capitol for several years while I was in college—I was a tour guide. Everyone at the Capitol was in law or thinking about law school. I had a sort of squishy history/English/government degree. It seemed like, “What the hell,” and I went to law school and it took.

Law School

Jane Snoddy Smith, partner, Real Estate, Norton Rose Fulbright (Austin), Emory University School of Law 1983: I was an anomaly. The only other women in the class were much older and returning to school after their kids were in high school or something. I definitely stood out.

Speedlin 1983: About 20% of our class were women. All of them went on to do amazing things: One is a top appellate lawyer in Texas; several of us became judges.

Grimes 1975: My class was the first [in which] one-third of the class was women.

Webre 1989: I think it was 40% women in my law school class. I had the benefit of coming after the pioneer stage—lots of women in law school, lots of women at the law firms. I wasn’t forging any new path. So that wasn’t so difficult as it would have been a generation earlier.

Galvan 1993: You did see a lot more women at law school during that time frame—probably about 50/50, which was very different for me. I graduated [in] engineering in ’85, and you saw very few women in engineering.

Grimes 1975: I didn’t find any problems in law school. I was in moot court, and we just plowed along and each of us worked really hard. I didn’t feel it with the professors. They were equally hard on us and gave us equal opportunities.

Galvan 1993: I remember being the only woman in my Electronics I class, and the professor walking in on the first day and looking around, and he said, “Well, we all know who’s going to fail this class,” as he looked at me. That is probably more like what some of the women experienced in law school years before—what you were still seeing in engineering in the early ’80s. I told myself, “If I fail every other class, I’m going to get an A in this one.” [Editor’s note: She got an A.]

Early Interviews

Smith 1983: I had this disastrous interview—this big silk-stocking kind of law firm just asked me questions about my intentions to have other children and being married and all the things you’re not supposed to ask. I’m like, “Don’t you want to talk about editor of the law review?” I was top of my class, and didn’t get a callback.

Grimes 1975: Some of the law firms in Dallas were not interviewing the women who were in the top of the class. So our class, through Jane Does—without naming their names, but everybody knew who was in the top of the class—brought a lawsuit against Dallas law firms. Then the next class got all kinds of opportunities. I was not part of the class that brought it because I was not interviewing in Dallas. I interviewed with Groce, Locke and Hebdon, the largest firm in San Antonio at the time. Charlie Smith was the hiring partner and he offered me a job, and I was the first woman hired. About three months later, they hired another woman, so there were two of us.

Webre 1989: From a gender standpoint, when I came through, the law firms were hiring women, judges were hiring women. I wasn’t foreclosed categorically, in a way I might have been, say, 15 years earlier.

Smith 1983: I had a sitter and she had to go home straight at 6. I’m doing this interview. Been there since 8 in the morning. Still there; it’s 5 o’clock, and I’ve got to get across town. All the other people they’re interviewing were going to go out for impromptu drinks afterward. Finally, [the senior partner] goes, “Well, do you have any other questions?” And I have to say “no,” because I have to get out of here. I didn’t get an offer there. My sitter almost quit. I had to beg her not to quit. I was so late!

Day-to-Day in the Law

Galvan 1993: Patent litigators had technical backgrounds, and there weren’t going to be that many women with technical backgrounds [back then]. I was new to the firm. Senior partner walked in. He looked around and said, “I did not think we were going to have any legal assistants in this meeting”—he made the assumption. That was 1996.

Webre 1989: A couple of times, early on, when I was in my 20s practicing, I walked into a conference room and someone asked me to get coffee because they thought I was, like, a runner. And I got them coffee, and the more senior partner from my firm came in: “Oh, you’ve already met Jane, she’s going to be the one writing the brief [and] doing the work.” And they realized, “Oh, gosh, I just asked her to get me coffee!”

Smith 1983: It worked out very well. I got an offer at a great firm. I had a great mentor. He would tell me every night: “Go home, Jane.”

Speedlin 1983: We struggled with things like, “How do we dress? Do we dress like it’s a man’s suit, but with a skirt, or do we get
more feminine? Do we dress like we went to church?” We had to figure that out on our own.

Grimes 1975: I remember my first hearing in Bexar County. Whenever your case is called, you stand up and say “defendant’s ready,” or “defendant’s not ready,” and “plaintiff’s ready.” When I stood up, the judge sort of winked and said, in a flirtatious tone, “Hey, counsel, I bet you want to confer.” But you just take it in stride. It doesn’t help to get mad or make a big scene about it. Your reputation is really important as a lawyer, because judges talk, and lawyers talk. Sometimes it’s not worth picking a fight over something like that, as opposed to fighting for your client and getting the win.

Speedlin 1983: I was one of the first trial attorneys in Bexar County. The judges weren’t ready for women trial attorneys. They accepted women, maybe, in family law, but they absolutely didn’t accept it in trial attorneys. There were quite a bit of put-downs, demeaning behavior by judges, just plain ignoring us, calling us “little ladies” in front of the jury or in front of our clients.

Webre 1989: I’ll have a big argument and kick ass, and then there’ll be a remark: “Good thing we had Jane, because women kick ass.” Well, no, Jane kicked ass!

Speedlin 1983: Even my own law firm, which was very progressive and had several women in it, I remember the first time that two of us—two women—were going to try a lawsuit by ourselves. No man involved. And the men in my law firm absolutely, positively panicked, with comments such as: “Should we notify our insurance carrier?”

Webre 1989: A wonderful aspect of being a woman practicing law in Texas is the sisterhood is so broad and wide. I’ve benefited from it as a youngster coming up and I hope that I’m sending the elevator back down and helping those behind me. Because there are the little things—on a good day you roll your eyes, on a bad day you get your feelings hurt.

Balancing Family and Careers

Smith 1983: I had a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old [during law school]. I didn’t have a lot of extra time. I have great pictures of kids on the bed with me and my law books everywhere and they’re reading their books and we’re just doing our thing together. I didn’t think it was something you shouldn’t do. I didn’t think it was something that was hard. But I guess it is.

Galvan 1993: I was a brand-new mom, a brand-new lawyer, getting home at 2 o’clock in the morning to a baby who did not want to be rocked to sleep—he wanted to be walked around. It was my turn—my husband had been with him. It is a constant juggling act between the work and the family. I was a six-year associate when my husband and I decided he would retire from his job as an engineer and stay home and raise our son, which gave me a lot more flexibility to focus on my career—in the same way that many of my male counterparts were able to because they had their spouses at home.

Smith 1983: I was the first person ever at my firm to get made partner when I was pregnant. That was just revolutionary. Nobody had ever done that. They actually asked me if I wanted to remove my name from contention and I said, “No—because I’m going to have this child for 18 years at least!” [Laughs.] At least!

Grimes 1975: My daughter is a lawyer at Baker Botts in Dallas. She has three children and she’s struggling with the same issues that women have struggled with all along, which is, “How do I do it all?”

Smith 1983: From the Center for Women in Law, where women are leaving law firms now is at age 50. So at some point they just give it up. I don’t know if that’ll be the case with the women that are coming in now, because hopefully we’ve put a lot of things in place, and I’ve worked a lot with women on our team to make sure they’re having the balance. People juggle all the time, but sometimes there is one ball too many. The statistics are that women come in, they do great, they have one kid; they come back, they have a second kid, they leave. But what’s astounding to me is, for those that stay, they leave at 50 because, I think, they didn’t get the success they thought they’d get. They worked so hard and it just didn’t happen. … At some point, they think, “It must be me.” But I’m global head of real estate at my firm, and I want my story to be motivational, because you can do it.

What Still Needs to Be Done

Speedlin 1983: The [women] who are graduating today, the ones I see in my firm—they have been trained through law school, “Don’t accept this behavior.” And they might be more willing to immediately address it head on. But for us, in the ’80s, we did it more by plowing on and showing our own strength, our own competence. My initial training as a professional was as a military nurse in the ’60s to early ’70s: When a male doctor walks into the room, you stand up, you give them your seat and you walk out of their space. You defer to these men. Obviously, that changed. I wasn’t trained to address it head-on as I would today.

Galvan 1993: I’m very active [in] the Center for Women in Law out of the University of Texas. We’ve looked at the statistics, and the percentage of women equity partners in big law firms 20 years ago and now has not changed much, if at all. When you add to that women lawyers of color, the numbers are just horrible. That’s not a good thing, despite the fact you have more women going to law school, and most of your most successful classmates, from a grade perspective, are typically women.

Speedlin 1983: In 1999, an opening came up in Bexar County for a district court judge. I pursued it by putting an application in, meeting with Governor George Bush, and he ultimately chose me. When I walked into my first judicial conference, which would have been 2000, the room was 90 percent older white men. By the time I was at the 4th Court of Appeals [beginning in 2003], that was changing. More and more women were being elected statewide and the complexion of the judicial conferences was rapidly changing.

Grimes 1975: I was inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers 15 years ago, and there were not many women. It took me back to the beginning of my career, when there were not many women around. That was kind of déjà vu. Kudos to the American College—as more women are getting more experienced, then they are being inducted into the College. But I would go to College events, and they’d look at my husband and say, “Where do you practice law?” And he’s a potter and a preacher.

Speedlin 1983: When I went to the 4th Court, I remember a time we became an all-female appellate court. It was the first time there was a female appellate court in the U.S. And I was shocked. Who would have thought that San Antonio would break that barrier first? That was very significant because young women coming behind me never have to think: “I can’t grow up to be a judge,” or “I can’t grow up and be an appellate justice.”

Grimes 1975: It’s a work in progress. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough women partners in law firms. And people have done all kinds of studies as to why that is happening. I hate it when I hear that women cannot have it all.

Webre 1989: I had an argument in the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals in January, and the panel was three women, including the first woman to be chief justice in that court of appeals. I got up and said, “I’ve got three points for rebuttal and one point of personal privilege.” I made my points and then [said], “I’m a woman, I’m here on this side of the podium arguing to a court and it is wonderful to see a panel of three women justices and the first woman to serve as chief justice of this court, and it’s great to be here, and I’m privileged to be able to argue to this panel.” It was a moment of the sisterhood. It’s part of the “never forget you’re a woman” bit of Sandra Day O’Connor’s admonition. It’s nice that we can all have a little group hug at a moment.

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