“The New Lady Lawyer in Town”
An oral history of the first wave of female attorneys
Published in 2019 Louisiana Super Lawyers Magazine on December 19, 2018
By the mid-1970s, women graduating from law school were no longer outliers, the way Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been. True, only a few women graduated from Tulane University Law School classes in the early ‘70s, but Rose McCabe LeBreton recalls women making up a third of her 1976 class.
“My husband was a year ahead of me,” she says. “His class was 25 percent women.”
Despite the progress, women in Louisiana still had to contend with outrages like major New Orleans firms being reluctant to interview—much less hire—them. There were also “Head and Master” laws, which gave men sole power to make household decisions over property and credit cards, and which Louisiana finally repealed in 1979—the final state to do so.
We interviewed eight Louisiana women who circumnavigated, outlasted or smashed through these barriers.
Why become a lawyer? Family tradition, aptitude and Perry Mason—the same reasons that people were and still are pursuing the law.
Pauline Hardin, partner, Jones Walker, Tulane University Law School 1974: I was always very argumentative and I really could not stand bullies. But growing up in the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s, there didn’t seem like there was much a girl could do about it. Then I went to an all-girls high school and joined the debate [team] in my first year, and I realized I loved to argue and was good at it, and that’s what lawyers did.
Rose McCabe LeBreton, shareholder, Lugenbuhl, Wheaton, Peck, Rankin & Hubbard, Tulane University Law School 1976: I come from a large family—big Irish families on both sides. My father was a lawyer and my maternal grandfather was one of the early Irish graduates of Columbia Law School, in 1902. His two sons were lawyers. So the idea of the legal profession was in the house.
Gracella Simmons, partner, Keogh Cox, Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center 1976: We had no attorneys in my family. We had no family friends who were attorneys. Perry Mason was my favorite TV attorney and I thought, “When I grow up, I want to be a lot like Perry Mason.”
Women were beginning to enroll in law school in greater numbers, but culturally, there was still a long way to go.
Hardin: I graduated in 1974. There were 185 law students, 15 of which were women, which is about 8 percent. Within five years or so, that number ratcheted up to about a third of the class. So there was a sea change within a short period of time.
Madeleine Fischer, special counsel, Jones Walker, Tulane University Law School 1975: There were about 20 women in the class, and we had a fairly small class. By the time I left, it was about 100.
Dawn Barrios, partner, Barrios Kingsdorf & Casteix, Tulane University Law School 1976: Tulane Law School did not have a women’s bathroom on the first floor where the freshman classroom was. You took most of your freshman classes on the first floor. So they recently had changed it to provide a women’s bathroom. Today, I would’ve been mortified and yelled, “Discrimination!” Back then, it was not challenged.
Lila Tritico Hogan, partner and owner, Hogan Attorneys, Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center 1975: I was active in student government, I was president of the Association of Women Students, I was active in the student union. I also protested the Vietnam War, I protested dorm rules. We had a curfew, the boys didn’t; I met with the administration to change the rules. I never put a flower in a gun, and I did not burn bras. But I was very active in changing rules.
Hardin: When I was in college, one of my cousins told my father he shouldn’t let me go to law school because it was a waste of time and money, because all I was going to do was get married. And my daddy just ignored him.
Corinne Morrison, senior partner, Chaffe McCall, Tulane University Law School 1975: Our professors never treated the women any differently than they treated the men. There really was not any feeling of “you’re not worthy to be here.” We were all on the same plane, which was very nice, because I’d grown up that way. My father [deLesseps Story “Chep” Morrison Sr.] was mayor of New Orleans for 14 years, and women were just as important as men, because they all voted.
Hogan: My first day of law school, I had a professor who was a renowned torts professor, who had an eyepatch. And I sat on the first row because I was a goody-goody. There were only two women in the class. He said, “When I was a young man, a tort was a wayward woman,” and he jumped up and leered over the desk and stared at me. I was petrified. I moved to the back of the room and tried to hide the whole rest of the course. It was a big joke to everybody in the classroom except for me.
“Head and Master” laws, repealed by Louisiana in 1979 and struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 as unconstitutional, sound like a joke today, but back then? Many were not laughing.
Kathleen Manning, member, McGlinchey Stafford, Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center 1977: The Head and Master [rule] was a big deal when I was in law school. There were still restrictions on women as far as signing mortgages and entering contracts, where the husband had to be part of the deal. We had a professor who was particularly strong in his belief that it was entirely appropriate and should never be changed. I didn’t have that particular guy, who was such a jerk, because I chose to have a woman for that course. She thought the Head and Master thing was stupid.
Fischer: Those were the days when women had to have their husbands’ permission to get credit cards and things like that. It was absolutely ridiculous.
Hogan: I had a wonderful professor—my favorite professor—who was extremely old-fashioned and he taught the Head and Master rule and community property. I got to where I thought “let’s just tease him,” and there were about five women in the course. We all dressed up in men’s suits and came to class one day. I thought he would take it as a joke. Well, he was furious, and he ran up and down the aisle saying, “I knew you wanted to be men! I knew you wanted to be men!” I was horrified, and after class I went to his office and apologized and told him we were just teasing him and thought he would laugh about it, and he said it was no laughing matter. That was pretty shocking to me, but I still love him and he even gave a reading at my wedding.
Fischer: I worked for a judge in federal court. I absolutely adored this judge. He did a lot to promote my career. But he was old-fashioned about the Head and Master idea, and a case came before him that challenged the constitutionality of it. He had two law clerks, and I was to take the even-numbered cases and my co-clerk was to take the odd-numbered cases. This was an even-numbered case. This was the only time I ever asked him to be excused from working on a case because I knew he was going to decide it against my personal beliefs. He allowed me to bow out of that personal assignment.
It could be a struggle to secure job interviews and be taken seriously if you landed one.
Hardin: The big law firms in New Orleans were really not hiring women when I came out of law school.
Fischer: When I was a second-year [student], there was a woman who was a third-year who was applying for jobs at various law firms in New Orleans. Some of the firms would not interview a woman. She made a complaint. Because of that, the firms thereafter started interviewing women. Whether or not they actually gave them jobs, they realized they could no longer say, “I’m not going to interview you because you’re a woman.”
LeBreton: I was 24 years old at this point, and because of my background, I wasn’t looking for prejudice. There was no sexism in my home life, so when I came out of law school, I didn’t [understand] it at first. Most of those firms had one or two women out of 35 lawyers. They had their one or two, and that was enough. They asked me if I was a member of the Junior League, if I flew home to New York to do my clothes shopping, where I did my grocery shopping and what my plans for family were. They’d interviewed my husband the year before, and none of these questions were asked of him. I had a lot of interviews and it was discouraging. You’d see the guy in your class who basically had the same grades, and he was getting the job.
Morrison: I went to International House for all my lunches, because it was the only club downtown where women could go.
Practicing law as a woman sometimes brought discrimination—and opportunity.
Hogan: I was pregnant and I was in court. It was with my last baby, David. I had a big community property trial and my client was a big executive. The court had 200 people in it. I walk in and I stand up to listen to the call of the docket to say that I was there and the judge looked at me and he said, “Lila, it looks like Tom knocked you up again.” I looked at him and said, “Judge, I enjoy getting pregnant.” Everybody in the courtroom just cracked up laughing. I won the case. Afterward, my client lit up and said, “Why did you put up with this? How could you let that judge get away with it?” I said, “Did you want to win that case?” She said yes. I said, “Had I reacted and told him off and told him how inappropriate that question was, we would have lost the case.” But as it was, I put him in a good mood, we all had a good laugh, and we were able to try the case and win it. The next week, I went to the judge and told him in private that it really embarrassed me, embarrassed my client, it was inappropriate and I didn’t like it. He said, “I was just teasing.” I said, “I know, judge. Please don’t do that to me again.” He said, “OK, OK,” and never did. If some judge said something like that to me today, I would consider filing a judiciary complaint against him.
Manning: Here in the South, even men who might otherwise have been hostile were always gentlemen. We never had the anger. We never got some of the stories that friends of mine told who lived in the North and other parts of the country, about being left out of things or harshly treated by judges. I never had that, ever. The veneer of the Southern gentleman protected us from that kind of stuff. Who knows what they said alone in chambers, or alone in meetings that we were not part of. And we did have a lot of “Oh, you can’t sit here, sweetie, this is where members of the bar sit” or “You must be the court reporter because you have a briefcase.” But it wasn’t nasty. It was funny, silly, and everybody was polite.
Hardin: The first week I was sworn in as an attorney, in 1974, I tried my first jury trial. When I got to court, I saw the jury venire and they were all men. I was the only female assistant district attorney in New Orleans at that time. I asked, “Why are there no women on the juries?” I was told, “They are not included in the jury pool unless they ask to be and they have to come register with the jury commissioner.” Naturally, women never knew this. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Taylor v. Louisiana they had to be included in jury pools. All of a sudden, the juries became one-half women.
Barrios: One of the clerks came up to me and said, “Don’t you [handle] breast-implant cases?” And I said yes. He said, “Well, this is the argument for the Louisiana class action on breast implants.” I looked at my partner and said, “OK, let’s walk up to the front and listen to the argument.” The person who was arguing was one of the deans of the Louisiana bar. They had a break in the argument; I went up to him to give him some information. I said, “I know you don’t know who I am, but I have a client who can strengthen your argument.“ My partner and I started walking out of the courtroom. He said, “Hey, baby! Hey, baby!” I had no idea he was talking to me, but finally it dawned on me. He said, “We need an attorney on this class action who’s a woman.” It turned out that, on the plaintiff steering committee on the Louisiana breast-implant class action, I was the only woman for years. My whole career turned on that chance meeting.
Hardin: The women reacted to a female assistant district attorney so positively. They really did. I was sort of an aberration, I suppose. They would come up to me after the trial was over and want to talk to me. They didn’t know women could do that.
Manning: The law firm I worked for first referred to me as “the skirt,” because I was the first woman they hired. But they were great to me. I didn’t have any “Oh, you can’t do that because you’re a girl.” If anything it was the opposite. It was like, “Oh, you look good, you can go run cover this in city court for me, please.” Or “I don’t have a tie with me today, can you go run and do this?”
Hogan: Right after clerking and law school, I was practicing in Abbeville, a bayou Cajun town. I knew one person. The ladies who were there said, “We want to take you where you can meet people tonight.” We went to a funeral home. At the end of the rosary, one of the women stands up and says, “Hold on, everybody, I want to introduce you to the new lady lawyer in town, Lady Lawyer Lila.” I had to stand up in front of a casket of somebody I did not know and tell them how sorry I was about the deceased person and how wonderful it was to be in their town.
While there’s still progress to be made, the changes over the past few decades are apparent.
Fischer: I’ve been at this firm for 40 years now, and I think I was the fourth woman. When I first started, they didn’t have a pregnancy policy or anything. They had to make it up as we went along. I’d raise these issues, we’d work them out, and I think I’m very lucky that they’ve always been accommodating even though there wasn’t any precedent at the time.
Hogan: My survival method, in law school, and when I was a young attorney, was just to laugh and let it roll off and not take offense, knowing they were trying to bait me. Now I would be more direct. I have a daughter who’s a lawyer, and she would not put up with half of the stuff I put up with. But she didn’t grow up in the era where you had to. We had to grin and bear it, shake it off, and make jokes about it. If we had taken offense at everything they did, we wouldn’t have made it very long in the practice of law.
Hardin: To get women in those high positions managing the law firm—I’m talking about the big law firms—there’s not that much of that yet. That is probably one of the last horizons.
Simmons: When I first started practicing, I didn’t encounter many women in the litigation area. Now there are many, and I find they are some of the very best lawyers in the courtroom. The whole picture has changed dramatically. We’re in a pretty good spot right now.
LeBreton: My message to younger women is to not let [prejudice] get in your way. Keep doing your job, keep working hard, and everything will work out.
Manning: The daughter of a friend of mine who works here told me this story: She has a son who’s 10 and a daughter who’s about 8. They came out one morning and there’s a landscaping crew working in the front yard. “Look at that, Mom, all the landscapers out there, they’re all girls.” And [the friend] said, “Yeah, they are, because women can do what men can do, and everybody chooses their own way to make a living.” And her daughter piped up and said, “Mom, did you know guys can be lawyers, too?” Because that little girl—her mother and the mothers of all her playmates are all lawyers!