No Women Allowed

Catharine Biggs Arrowood on bias then and now, the importance of networks, and how she got her very own Perry Mason moment

Published in 2011 North Carolina Super Lawyers — February 2011

In 1976, when Catharine Biggs Arrowood graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law, she was shocked at the responses she received when applying for jobs—no women were allowed. Despite such discrimination, Arrowood was able to find a group of lawyers who brought her into their firm and supported her. In September, the business litigator and partner at Parker Poe spoke with Super Lawyers.

 

What inspired you to choose law?

When I was about 9 years old, my dad [who was a lawyer] took me down to our local courthouse to see something very unusual: It was the first woman superior court judge in North Carolina, Susie Sharp. She later became the first woman elected chief justice of any state supreme court. Dad took me down to see this unusual [laughs] event and I just thought it was a very fine thing that she was sitting up there on the bench, telling the men what to do and they were doing it. I thought, “You know, I think this might be for me.”

Plus, I loved Perry Mason. That was my favorite TV show. It was a combination of things, but, primarily, seeing her on the bench just made a big difference in my knowing I could do it.

 

How did you end up choosing your practice area?

When I graduated from law school in 1976, it was not exactly the era of specialty. And when I first graduated, I could not get a job. They were not hiring women in private practice; I could’ve gone back and practiced with my dad, but I just didn’t want to do that. Rufus Edmisten, who was then the state attorney general, hired me for the antitrust section. I knew nothing about antitrust law but educated myself, liked it. … Within a few months, I met the people at the Terry Sanford law firm and started with them in 1977, and I’ve been with the same group ever since. They let me, from the very beginning, do complicated litigation, high-stakes litigation, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.

The only really big change in my practice over the last 30 years has been the increasing use of arbitration. [I’ve] become an arbitrator and serve on both the AAA [American Arbitration Association] panel as well as its international panel, which is a lot of fun. It adds a new level of complexity when it’s a case involving multinational parties. So it was in some ways sort of an accident. I did figure out pretty quickly that transactional work was fun and very interesting, but my personality’s much more suited to trial work and advocacy.

 

You were recently featured in Leading with Care, a book associated with the humanitarian nonprofit organization CARE. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Mary Cantando, the author of the book, as I understand it, interviewed hundreds of women. I was in the section titled “Addressing Discrimination.” I was one of the four examples she gave about overcoming bias and discrimination.

 

Can you talk a little bit about what you faced in your career? Are there any key moments that stick out in your mind?

I come from an entrepreneurial family; nobody ever told me I couldn’t do things. [There are] many strong women in my family—not just one or two, but many. The first time I really realized the world was not going to welcome me with open arms was when I was trying to get a summer clerkship during my second year at law school and I interviewed with a firm from Greensboro, N.C. The bar at that time was fairly small [and because my dad was a lawyer] I really knew a lot of the lawyers who were practicing in North Carolina—and I happened to know the members of this law firm. I was at the top of my law school class; I was a hard worker; I thought, “I’ll go interview for this job.” And they told me point-blank that they would not hire women lawyers. I couldn’t believe it.

Just a few weeks after that, I interviewed with a woman who was one of our judges, thinking that of course she would be more open to the idea of having a woman law clerk. But she informed me that she worked late at night and the state did not provide escorts, so she made it a practice to always have a male law clerk. She proceeded to hire one of my classmates who was then a player on the college football team. Now, I’m sure he turned out to be a perfectly fine clerk, but I would never let him forget how he got that job.

It was really hard for me; it was just startling. I just couldn’t believe it. I could not find a job. This was not the best of economic times, by any means, but the dean of the law school at the time was very protective of our male law students who had been offered jobs but had them withdrawn because of the bad economy, yet he would not lift a finger for the women in our class. Admittedly, there were only 10 or 12 of us, a very small number, but it was one of the most shocking experiences for me. Because of it, if any time a woman lawyer calls me up and says, “I need help; I need advice,” I will drop everything to go help them because I think we’ve come a long way, but a lot of the discrimination now is subtle and not overt—but it is still definitely out there.

 

Any examples?

Women lawyers do not get paid the same as male counterparts. There was an article, a study just published by Catalyst, [a nonprofit organization working to expand opportunities for women professionals], I think it was Monday, [about] trying to understand the pay disparity. As this article lays it out, it isn’t because women aren’t pulling their weight. It isn’t because they’re working half time. There’s just still an attitude in the society out there that has not gone away yet. I’ve been very lucky in my career, I’ve practiced law with some terrific people and they have been very generous and fair to me, but not everyone has had that luxury.

 

Do you see an end for that bias in the near future?

I think so, because, since roughly 1986, about 10 years after I got out of law school, law school classes got to be 50 percent women. And, you know, if you want to hire smart people, a certain percentage of them are going to have to be women. It takes a long time to change institutions from the ground up, but I think just by the sheer numbers, we are finally getting to the point where those 1980-something women graduates are moving into positions of leadership in their law firms. You’re seeing increasing numbers of women sitting on law firm management committees and sitting in the general counsel’s office. And that is what will ultimately make even, hopefully, the most subtle bias disappear. But it just takes time.

 

Do you have a most memorable case that you’ve handled?

[Laughs] I do! And it’s funny ’cause it certainly isn’t my biggest or most complex case. … I was a second-chair in the case. We took on a case representing a truck driver from Florida whose father had died in Asheville, N.C., while on vacation. The son had arranged for his father to be cremated and the remains shipped back to Florida for a memorial service and daddy never showed up. So we sued the funeral home and it was just a very dramatic case.

About a week before we started the trial—this is in federal court in Asheville—a box arrived at our client’s home in Florida, purporting to be the remains of his father. Because they had never put a cause of death on [the death certificate for his dad at the hospital], we were able to get the North Carolina medical examiner to agree that he would look at the box and see what was in it.

We were rehearsing [the medical examiner’s] testimony the night before, going over what he was going to say and what he had found, and he said, “Here’s a bag that contains remains of dentures that I found in these ashes.” Well, the son jumped up and said, “That is not daddy!”

 

How did he know?

Because his dad’s dentures—he had had two sets of dentures—had been given to him at the hospital; they were not in his mouth when he was cremated.

We tried this funeral home owner. He got on the stand and cried. He said he’d been having all these problems and [was] begging the jury. We were very suspicious. He claimed that they had mailed daddy’s remains and that it must’ve gotten lost in the mail and that’s why it didn’t arrive until two weeks before the trial. So we went down and showed the postmaster the box that it had been mailed in and asked him if, looking at it, could he tell us anything about when it had been mailed. At first, he said, “Well, you can’t really tell.” Then, while we’re in the middle of the trial, he came running upstairs and said, “I’ve just realized—the postage went up. And it is clear that this was mailed after X date.” So we impeached this guy on the stand.

It was a classic Perry Mason case, with high drama in the courtroom, people going, “That’s not true! That’s not daddy!” So that’s why I liked it so much.

 

So you really got to fulfill what had inspired you early on.

Exactly. I mean it was just like the TV show. There were about 20 different reasons why it’s my favorite case. Not the least of which was that we really felt like we accomplished something for this gentleman. He at least got some answers about what had happened.

In any event, we got around a $25,000 verdict [in 1979]. The local bar could not believe it. They had told us, “You know, juries up here will not pay a dollar for something like this, even if you show they’re liable.” But, it was just a terrific case. It really was.

 

What advice do you have for young lawyers today?

There are two aspects to it. The first aspect is, with the economy like it is, it’s very difficult for young lawyers right out of school to find jobs, and I think that they need to realize that they are in a profession and not to let the current economic environment compromise their professional integrity in any way.

Probably the most important thing is to find a couple of people whom you admire and respect, who have been successful, and get their advice. Actively seek it out, because I know it certainly made a difference for me.

 

Any specific instances come to mind?

I had a pratfall about 10 years [into my practice]. We had a very complicated case, a struggle for control in a publicly held company. There were a lot of lawyers involved in the case, a lot of parties in it. I had been kind of assigned the job of orchestrating all the discovery, and then, when time came for the trial, plan the trial: to present who our witnesses would be, select the dockets, do the preliminary work on that. Then the whole team was going to get together and discuss it. So I put it all together and this older lawyer said to me, “Well, Catharine, you know, this is great, you’ve done just wonderful work, thank you so much, but why have you assigned yourself for the examination of certain witnesses?” And I said, “Well, because it’s cost-effective for the client. I took these depositions, I know the witnesses, I know the documents better than any of you, and it just made sense to me.” And he said, “Well, we’re not going to have any girls sitting at the table. You know, this is an arbitration panel, the arbitrators are all men; they won’t know what to think if a girl is sitting at the table, so you’re not going to be at the hearing. And you’re not going to help try the case.”

I had to decide right then what was I going to do about that. I finally just said, “Mr. X, I hear what you say. That’s fine. You may now do this case without me. I quit the case,” and I got up and walked out.

As it happened, the client got wind of it, and about an hour later, I get this phone call [from him] saying, “Please come back!”

I just had to draw a line in the sand. … To have Bob [Spearman] and Al [Adams] and Bill McCullough and others at my firm to confer with, and get advice from them, and their support maybe most importantly, just made all the difference for me because I knew I could count on them to back me up. And they did.

You really appreciate the people you practice law with when you face a situation like that, because you want to do the right thing for the client, but at the same time, you don’t want to compromise your personal integrity. And these guys had my back all the way.

 

What’s the most rewarding part about being a lawyer?

The feeling that you have helped someone when they’re in trouble. People come to see me after some big mess has been created or they’ve got a very big problem. I see my job as solving that problem for them. Sometimes it means we have to sue somebody. Sometimes it means we have to defend a piece of litigation and try the case. But just about as often it means that we come up with a solution and solve it by settling the case. I’m a big advocate for alternative dispute resolution. I do arbitration. I serve as a mediator. And I believe that if you’ve got good counsel on both sides of the case, you can often figure out a solution to the problem that is good for both sides. … There’s just great satisfaction in just knowing that you’ve helped somebody and they can get on with their lives.

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