‘We Don’t Let Girl Lawyers Practice Up Here’

An oral history of women who persevered against sexism and discrimination to remake the legal profession

Published in 2018 Mid-South Super Lawyers Magazine

It wasn’t easy. The women in this feature entered the male-dominated legal profession in the 1970s and began changing its demographics. Here are some of the things they heard along the way:

    “Are you here to find a husband?”

    “We don’t let girl lawyers practice up here.”

    “Oh, you’re just a woman.”

But there was also this: 

    “You can make it, you can make it.”

 

“These women blazed a trail, facing challenges I can’t imagine dealing with,” says Christine Segarra, whose class of 2013 at Tulane Law School was nearly 60 percent women. “They established what is acceptable and what will not be tolerated in this profession. … I’m grateful that they made it possible for me to have a normal work environment.”

For some, it was about making a statement; for others, it was about the work. Kay Farese Turner was one of just 15 women in the entire University of Mississippi School of Law when she entered in the early ’70s. “I am not a feminist and never will be,” she says. “I never wanted to be separate or apart from the mainstream. I was criticized for that by other women, but my only concern was the rule of law.”

Here are their stories. 

 

Their paths to a legal career are as varied as their interests, backgrounds and role models.

 

Kay Farese Turner, Kay Farese Turner & Associates; Family Law; Memphis, Tennessee; University of Mississippi School of Law, 1973: I was born into a legal family. My father, from Boston, went to the University of Mississippi on a boxing scholarship, worked his way through college and law school, and fell in love with my mother, who was dropped out of a spaceship into the middle of Mississippi. She was my biggest role model—the second woman state senator in Mississippi, a state where women at that time didn’t really have much of a voice. But they listened to her.

 

Melva Harmon, Attorney at Law; Employment & Labor; Little Rock, Arkansas; University of Texas-Austin, 1976: I wanted to be a social worker—there was so much social change going on when I was in high school, and I was impressionable. But once I took some classes as an undergrad, I realized that wasn’t for me. My father, a World War II veteran who worked for the VA, had always wanted to be a lawyer, so he suggested I give that a try. It sounded like a good idea. 

 

Carol Ann Smith, Smith & Bahakel; Business Litigation; Birmingham, Alabama; University of Alabama School of Law, 1975; New York University School of Law, 1977: I was born in Alabama and my daddy was from Alabama. But my mother was from West Texas, and those people are a different breed—pioneer stock, very hardy, self-sufficient—so I always had confidence that I could be anything. The thing is, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. Daddy was a minister, and I had deep faith, so growing up, I thought I’d be a preacher.

 

Carolyn Witherspoon, Cross, Gunter, Witherspoon & Galchus; Employment & Labor; Little Rock, Arkansas; University of Arkansas School of Law, 1978: I watched Perry Mason all the time and I loved Della Reese. But Perry seemed to be having more fun than Della, so I decided I needed to be like Perry—but also like Della, practical and organized.

 

Christy Jones, Butler Snow; Personal Injury Products: Defense; Ridgeland, Mississippi; University of Arkansas School of Law, 1977: All I ever wanted to do since high school was try lawsuits, probably because I enjoyed standing up and talking to a bunch of people. You can tell that I’ve got a really deep voice for a woman. To get me out of the chorus, our choral director told me I could be the emcee. I really got into that.

 

Witherspoon: As an undergrad, I worked for a woman named Sara Murphy. She wasn’t a lawyer, but she was working on a study for the Commission on Women in Arkansas about women in the legal and medical professions. I learned about the injustices that had been following women, knew it was going to be a hard road. I was going through a divorce at the time, so I’d work at her house and she’d help with my daughter. She was a great friend and mentor, and very influential in guiding me and encouraging me toward law school. 

 

Turner: I studied English lit as an undergrad and saw this correlation between Shakespeare and the dramatic reality of life, and started listening to my father’s stories about his cases, and figured that practicing law would be a really interesting study in human nature. 

 

Smith: I had two job offers after college—secretary at a church, and government documents librarian in the Birmingham Public Library. That’s the job I took. It was nice but very confining. You couldn’t wear pastel colors or culottes, you had to wear hose with toes. So what do you do when you have a general degree and you’re not qualified to do anything? I got a big old scholarship to the University of Alabama School of Law.

 

In law school, most of them stood out—often in ways they would not have preferred.

 

Lynne K. Green, Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes; Estate Planning & Probate; Jackson, Mississippi; University of Mississippi, 1978: There definitely were times when I got condescending remarks about women studying the law. Mostly we were all in it together, but I’m sure there were some who thought I would just get married. 

 

Turner: I’d just gotten divorced, so I went to law school with a 2-year-old child. I was 26, and either very foolish or very brave. Our classes were huge, and my second week there, the professor called my name and said, “Are you here to find a husband?” I just laughed and told him, “Why would I want to do that; I just got rid of one two weeks ago.” It helped to have a sense of humor. 

 

Witherspoon: Being a single mom in law school was a nightmare. I’d sit on my daughter’s bed and study at night, and she’d say, ‘Why do you have to read so much?’ 

 

Harmon: My first-year law school class had about 1,500 students. Maybe 15 percent were women, and I wouldn’t say that we were well accepted. But I still enjoyed law school because it was intellectually challenging. And though it could be stressful, I didn’t feel intimidated. I left thinking that I could do anything I wanted to do. I got that from my parents and grandmother.

 

Witherspoon: I was in the first class that had a substantial number of women—about a third were women. A lot of us were older, had children or we’d had other careers. The general reaction from most of the males was good. Although some professors were a little off-balance, most were fabulous, and very supportive of me personally.

 

Turner: In my legal writing class, I was one of three people who got an ‘A’. Word spread that I was seeing the professor. If you had seen the professor, you would have laughed as loud as I did. Another class that I loved was constitutional law. When I made an ‘A’ in that class, the guy I was dating and his roommate were convinced I was seeing the professor. I thought it was funny. I learned early on how to shrug things off.

 

Jones: I’m one of the lucky people that didn’t personally experience any kind of discrimination in law school. But when I graduated, after having done really well in school, I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I was told by several law firms that their clients wouldn’t allow a woman to try a lawsuit. I could get a job in another area, but not in litigation.

 

Witherspoon: My second year of law school, I had a bad wreck and was out for several weeks, unable to sit up because I’d broken my pelvis. My professors would allow me to tape the lectures while I was in bed and made arrangements for me to finish up one class so I could graduate with my class. I remember my civil procedure exam, my worst class. The elevator went out in the building and I had to crutch up six flights of steps, with a professor behind me saying, “You can make it, you can make it.”

 

The job market was a wide-ranging frontier—sometimes barren, often challenging, with the occasional unforeseen opportunity.

 

Linda Friedman, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings; Intellectual Property Litigation; Birmingham, Alabama; Vanderbilt University Law School, 1976: I split one summer between New York and Atlanta, clerking for different firms. That’s where I first met women lawyers—at those firms. They were only five, maybe eight, years older than me, and they were already forging careers in litigation. That impressed me, that there was a place for women in this career.

 

Jones: Mississippi is always on the bottom of every ranking, but it’s been progressive with respect to women in the law. I thought: If I can’t get a job anywhere else, there’s always Mississippi. So I sent out my résumé and the man that became my mentor, Larry Franck, called and said, “This is a big deal for us, and we don’t want to interview you unless you’re serious.” After a few hours of meeting with them, I knew I was taking the job. They said they’d let me try lawsuits, and they were true to their word. So I stayed.

 

Smith: I worked so hard through law school, but couldn’t find a job. I was dating the DA in the little county I lived in, and he said, “You can come work for me and collect child paternity payments.” I didn’t want to shake down a bunch of poor men. So I applied to NYU [for an LL.M.]and they gave me a big scholarship. I’d never been to New York, so I went and studied tax law.

 

Green: There weren’t a lot of older women in the work force where I was, and it wasn’t an easy task to find a job. I spent a lot of time looking around for work in smaller towns. Then I found a job with this accounting firm that was actively seeking lawyers with an accounting degree, working as an accountant. 

 

Friedman: The female lawyer at the firm in New York where I clerked is Kimba Wood—a judge who has handled several high-profile cases, including her consideration this year of claims of attorney-client privilege for millions of records seized by the FBI from Michael Cohen. She recommended I apply for a clerkship with a judge that had impressed her, here in Birmingham. He was the only judge I applied with, and I’m certain I got the position because of her referral. I’ve been in Birmingham ever since.

 

Getting a foot in the door to the courtroom was hard enough, but just being in that room presented its own set of trials and tribulations.

 

Harmon: Representing the unions, I was often the only woman in the room. There were executives, union officers, and occasionally judges who didn’t want to deal with women. Early on, I was representing a woman in a settlement and the judge asked her if she thought she was well represented, since her lawyer was “only a woman.” It was a slow process, but I learned to persevere and overcome such clueless behavior.

 

Smith: The first case I tried by myself was a setup. It was 1979, and I was representing the railroad. My firm did a lot of railroad work, and the railroad always lost in Birmingham, which was a blue-collar town, a lot of union people. So one of the partners got the idea to try a new tactic: Send her up there to try it by herself. I was such a curiosity, the whole bar turned out to watch me and I thought, “How nice they’re all so interested in each other’s cases; what a community!” It didn’t dawn on me that I was a curiosity. I didn’t know I was supposed to lose. Well, I had the element of surprise in my favor. I asked all the right questions and I won.

 

Green: One of our firm’s founders apparently, at one time, had a different opinion of women lawyers. Shortly after I joined the firm, he took me and two other women to a luncheon club and we had a great time. A day or two later, I found a basket of fresh peaches on my desk with a note, “From your favorite male chauvinist pig—reformed.”

 

Smith: We had a small bar in Alabama at the time, and knew the judges that were difficult. There was a judge who wanted the opposing lawyer, his old friend, to win a case. So first he sent the jury out, then he waited until the jury came out to the box, and that’s when he started chastising me for nothing, trying to humiliate me in front of the jury. I didn’t like it, but it didn’t faze me. Word got out quickly about this guy. Another time, in a rural area, a judge told me, “We don’t let girl lawyers practice up here.” 

 

Green: Clients I’ve worked with, widows, actually preferred working with a woman. Sometimes they feel like the men are a little condescending or don’t listen very well. But I’ve also worked with older men in the past who didn’t think much of me and wanted to talk to someone else, “a man who can make decisions.” That doesn’t happen so much anymore.

 

And where are we now? Obviously in a better place. But even though the profession has become more accepting of women, some antiquated attitudes remain pervasive.

 

Turner: It’s been a real journey for me to watch the evolution. More than half of the students in law schools today are women; we have a huge contingency of women lawyers in Mississippi; and we have a lot of women judges. As a whole, women have come a long way in this profession, and that’s a good thing. But for me, if you’re a lawyer, your concern is the rule of law, not your gender. … I get disgusted and tired with women lawyers who say, “The reason I didn’t win this case is because I’m a woman.” I say the reason you didn’t win is because you weren’t prepared.

 

Green: There were plenty of times when I had to make hard decisions: to do things for my family or work more hours. I mean, my kids all played sports, were in the school band, and did everything else known to man. There are certain things you have to do to make sure you take care of your practice, but my firm has been wonderful about allowing me to strike a balance.

 

Friedman: I was the first woman lawyer at my firm to have children, but that didn’t happen until I made partner. Now both of my daughters are practicing law. I always thought they’d go into something other than law because they saw how stressful this work can be. 

 

Harmon: Things are so much better with regards to the work-life balance, and I feel like it’s a lot easier than it used to be. But still, there aren’t many opportunities for women at the top—not a lot of CEOs, not enough sitting on company boards. But I think we’re at a breakthrough moment.

 

Christine Segarra, Burr & Forman; Civil Litigation: Defense; Mobile, Alabama; Tulane Law School, 2013: Our firm has female partners that I look up to. They juggle all of these work and family responsibilities. They’re bright and go toe-to-toe with men all the time without blinking an eye. I think that’s really cool.

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