This Is a Change, and I Want to Be Part of It
An oral history of trailblazing women in the law
Published in 2020 Colorado Super Lawyers Magazine on March 16, 2020
From 1969 to 1971, on the University of Michigan campus, Jeralyn Merritt hung out with Iggy Pop, MC5 and Alice Cooper while working her part-time job at a record store. When there were student protests at the University of Southern California, Lynn Feiger recalls the female law school dean bringing donuts as part of a plan to defuse tension. Nancy R. Crow was able to travel through Europe after law school, when her male contemporaries could not, because they were eligible to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
The seven Colorado attorneys here each has her own tale to tell of law school—but they have one thing in common: They were part of a growing movement of women pursuing the law. Two years before Mary Ewing enrolled at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, the class contained just one or two female students, and by the time she enrolled, women were up to 15%.
“Women trial lawayers were not just a rarity in those days; we were an oddity,” says Jane Michaels. “There were plenty of male lawyers and judges who did not think we could succeed in their elite world.”
Mary Ewing, owner, Mary Ewing Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law 1975, personal injury and family law: I grew up in the Deep South. Most women of my background were homemakers and involved in charity work and that didn't really appeal to me. Two of my brothers-in-law and my at-the-time boyfriend were either lawyers or going to law school, and I got interested in the law.
Lynn Feiger, shareholder, Lohf Shaiman Jacobs Hyman & Feiger, USC Gould School of Law 1971, employment and labor: My mother was a lawyer, but I didn't want to be like her. So I went and worked with the farm workers in Visalia, in the San Joaquin Valley of California, in the summer of 1965. Cesar Chavez was just getting going. I joined a group of students from Berkeley and we were supporting ourselves picking plums from the field and then helping the farmworkers organize any way that they could. The one thing they kept telling us they needed was lawyers, and that's what gave me the idea.
C. Jean Stewart, principal, Jean Stewart LLC, University of Denver Sturm College of Law 1974, alternative dispute resolution: When I was probably 10 years old, I decided that I wanted to be an FBI agent. I had read the Nancy Drew books. In those days, you could get into the FBI Academy in Washington if you had a law degree or an accounting degree. I felt I would probably have to do the law route because my mathematics skills just weren't strong enough. I didn't make it into the FBI. It's all right! I've had a wonderful career.
Jeralyn Merritt, proprietor, Jeralyn Merritt Attorney at Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law 1973, criminal defense: I decided I was going to be an attorney when I was in high school after taking a political science class during which we learned about the haves and the have-nots, and congressional techniques such as pork-barreling and logrolling. All my friends were going to law school, assuming they didn't get drafted.
Jane Michaels, of counsel, Holland & Hart, Boston University School of Law 1973, alternative dispute resolution: I was getting a master's degree in English and I was teaching at a junior college, but I wasn't satisfied with that as a potential career. One day a friend from college came to visit me. She was getting a master's in history. I asked her what she was doing next year. She said, “I'm going to go to law school.” Without much forethought, I said, “So am I!” It was really one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Law School Days: “We gave each other a huge amount of support”
Betty Arkell, partner, Dorsey & Whitney, University of Colorado Law School 1975, corporate finance: There were approximately 23 women out of a class of 165. It's certainly better than some of the 3-4% in the classes that came before me. It's still not a great percentage, but we were starting.
Nancy R. Crow, of counsel, Hutchins & Associates, University of Colorado Law School 1974, tax law: We formed a women's law caucus to greet the incoming women, and there were increasing numbers in every year, which gave us great courage as well as sensitivity. We were really the first wave of women in significant numbers in law school. The previous class was 7% women and we were about 15%. We were still at the point where we were unusual, where we were given snide looks. One of the male law students said, “All of the women here are either married or dogs.” That indicated men's feelings that we did not really belong there.
Stewart: I do recall the first day sitting in the auditorium and having the dean of the law school ask the women to stand up. He was very proud and said it was twice the number of the previous year. He was a great advocate for women and very supportive.
Michaels: It was a small minority, but we comprised quite a large percentage of the law review.
Arkell: We did pretty well. It's hard to ignore people at the top of their class just because they're women.
Crow: We banded together. We had a women's study group and gave each other a huge amount of support against the onslaughts of criticism, and just the sense they didn't quite know what to do with us.
Feiger: The year ahead of me, there were three women in the class. My year was different because you had the Vietnam War going on, and there were less men available, so there were maybe 11 or 12 women in my class.
Michaels: I had one professor who felt it was his goal in life to either beat me down or toughen me up. He called on me every. Single. Day. When some other student answered he would return to me and say, “Do you agree with that? Why or why not?” I had a really bad flu one time in law school and I would not skip that class. I refused to let him think he had gotten the best of me.
Feiger: In my third year, I was taking a federal practice course and we got to go to court for the first time. There was one other woman in the class and the bailiff seated [us] in the back and at the end. As everybody was filing out, I turned to the bailiff and said, “I guess it wasn't my day.” He said, “Oh, is it that time of month?” It just kind of knocked me dead. I didn't say anything, I just turned totally purple.
Michaels: I remember thinking at that time, and for many years later, that women would be more or less equal in the legal profession when mediocre women could do as well as mediocre men. At law school, we had to rise to the top in order to be recognized.
Interviews and First Jobs: “I think it's my obligation to hire women this year”
Arkell: The women in my class were among the first to really start cracking the glass ceiling as far as hiring.
Feiger: When I got out of law school, the newspapers were divided between females-wanted and males-wanted job ads. I didn't even think to question that.
Merritt: There was a pretty famous local criminal defense lawyer, and I interviewed with him. I [received] a letter telling me he wasn't going to hire me because his wife would kill him. He said something about “because I was too good-looking.” Another lawyer, we were coming back from court one day, and he just out of nowhere says to me: “I think it's my obligation to hire women this year; let me know if you want a job.” But I didn't want one; I went out on my own eight months after being a lawyer for a small firm.
Crow: There were law firms that told me things like, “Well, we hired a woman once and it didn't work out, and I don't want to hire another one.”
Michaels: As a trial lawyer, I would be seated at counsel table. The judge would come onto the bench and he would invariably say, “Good morning, gentlemen.” That was very common.
Ewing: In the first couple of years of my practice, I was sent down to Texas to take some deposition in a glass-walled conference room, and I got the sense there were a lot of people going by the window to see what that lady lawyer looked like.
Michaels: One client said, “I don't want a girl lawyer on my case.” My firm responded, “Then you probably don't want Holland & Hart on your case, because she's the best qualified to handle this.”
Crow: I went to work for a woman judge who was very conscious of providing an example for other women. I was reprimanded for telling another law clerk that she was not in chambers because she'd gone to get a haircut. It's indicative of the walking-on-eggshells feeling that many women had in that period. We were trying to figure out how we could succeed and fit into what was still clearly portrayed as a man's world. This became a time of the padded shoulders, the navy-blue suits with the little floppy ties, to make us look manlike in some respects. Many of us struggled with just how to look like a lawyer and still be true to who we are.
Stewart: This baby thing—they were just obsessed with it [at interviews]. You'd be in a room with three or four men and they'd usually be on one side of the table or they would be situated in a way that you'd feel like you were being interrogated at a police station somewhere.
Ewing: There was a trial judge [who] would talk to the jury at the beginning and say, “Now don't you ladies go wearing any hot pants!”
Stewart: In those days, the world was divided into people who thought it was a fad and that women were not going to last, and people who said, “This is a change, and I want to be a part of it, and I'm going to help, I'm going to participate.”
Michaels: We felt collectively like we had to be the very best lawyers we could be or that we would be letting down all of the women who became lawyers after us. We felt like Daniel Boone figures in the legal profession.
Family Leave: “What do we do with the pregnant lawyer?”
Crow: They definitely had powwows over “What do we do with the pregnant lawyer?” The law firm I was with was founded by two tax lawyers, a man and a woman. The woman did have children while she was in private practice and did legal work from her hospital bed and then came right back to work. She was a little ahead of me and at the time she thought that's what you had to do. I ended up working very, very hard, as well as running into snowstorms where I was being dinged at the Montessori school for picking up my child late.
Stewart: I waited until I was about five and a half months pregnant to tell them. They struggled with it a lot. It brought up some fractures in the system: They had to confront the issues about “are we going to let them come back, are we going to keep a job open for them, are we going to count that as time?” I don't know if they came up with a “policy.” They did ultimately tell me I could be gone for up to 12 weeks—but they hoped I wouldn't take that many weeks. I took 10.
Ewing: When I was pregnant with my son—he was two weeks late—I worked the Friday before I went in to be induced on Monday. I was scheduled to try a case in two weeks. Fortunately, it got settled, but I went back to work in a couple of weeks, having had a C-section. As opposed to my daughter-in-law, who had a baby in January—she works for a big firm and could go on part-time leave several weeks before the anticipated delivery date. So that's a huge difference.
The Clubs: “Women had to utilize the side door”
Arkell: The clubs in Denver, like the University Club and Denver Athletic Club, would not admit women members. Both Sherman & Howard and Holland & Hart, [in] my first year of practice, scheduled their holiday parties at those clubs. Fortunately, there were some men who were sensitive to this. There was actually a meeting of representatives of some of the big firms. They said, “We're not going to hold any functions here as long as you don't admit women.” You go to the Denver Athletic Club now, and it's certainly 50-50, and they've got, you know, a daycare.
Stewart: Almost every facility in the city of Denver had a room where we were not allowed. That was the way they phrased it: “Here's a room where women are allowed.” So if a group from the law firm wanted to take a client to lunch, they had to eat in the ladies' dining room if they wanted to take me, or any woman, with them.
Ewing: I went to various events at the University Club, but in those years, women were not allowed to be members and had to utilize the side door on 17th Street. It did eventually open up.
The Early Cases: “Football is a species of warfare”
Merritt: There weren't many women in Denver who were doing federal defense and not associated with the public defender's office or U.S. Attorney's Office. I tried my first federal criminal case, a drug case, in 1974. I really liked the gambling cases and the early drug cases. Wiretapping became one of my specialties early on.
Feiger: My partner, Leslie Lawson, and I did the first sexual harassment case in the country that went to trial: Heelan v. Johns-Manville Corp. Johns-Manville was a big manufacturer. They did installation and roofing and had moved their world headquarters outside of Chatfield. [The plaintiff] was the second-highest-level female employee of the company, and she was in charge of the interior design of the building. Her boss had said that either she would sleep with him or she would lose her job, and when she refused, she lost her job. It didn't dawn on me that this was particularly significant. I was kind of oblivious. It was just another discrimination case.
Ewing: The firm where I worked as an associate had a man who represented a former Broncos player, and he was injured during a game. The lawsuit was filed against the Cincinnati Bengals and [then-NFL player] Boobie Clark. I ended up taking Boobie Clark's deposition—I thought maybe he was going to come over the table and hit me. He was a very big guy and very angry. We had 8-millimeter game tapes, where it showed our client getting hit in the back of the head by Boobie Clark. The judge denied the case. He said, “Football [is] a species of warfare,” and my client consented to being hurt while playing. I appealed it to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and won the case.
Merritt: I was one of the five principal trial lawyers for [convicted Oklahoma bomber] Timothy McVeigh. At first I said no, because I'd never done a murder case. I said, “I've got to talk to my son, because I'm a single mother and I'm not going to be able to spend as much time with him, plus he might get ridiculed in school or something.” But he thought it was cool, so we were fine.
Where Are We Now?
Arkell: The percentage of women who become equity partners still is relatively low, but it's getting better here in Denver. I see more women moving over to in-house counsel, whereas I see more men moving into business positions.
Stewart: A male judge who hands out a harsh sentence, or does a strong order, is hailed as tough and profound, and a woman who does it is a bitch and cranky. Women judges have always had to be cautious about their demeanor so they didn't feed into that stereotype. I've been gone [from Denver Probate Court] eight or nine years, and women judges are being more assertive and I applaud them for that.
Feiger: It's obviously way better. It's 50-50 men and women in law schools nowadays, and I don't think there's the same kind of discrimination in corporate hiring or big-law-firm hiring any longer. There are women judges, there are women faculty. But there's still a lot of discrimination. Women partners generally get paid significantly less than male partners—that's a problem across the country. And law firms are not sufficiently understanding of women taking family leave or having family responsibilities, and they get penalized far more than men do in similar situations.
Feiger: I have grandsons applying to college now. What I tell young women lawyers all the time is “you can do it all.” I really think you can—it's just you can't do it all at the same time. Life is a really long time.
Merritt: Now you can't help but go to court and notice just how many women there are. You get a thrill when both the prosecutor and the defense counsel are women and the judge is a woman. And, you know, feel a little pride.