Five Amazing Women Who Shattered The Glass Ceiling
When Shelby Benton takes the oath of office in Asheville next summer, she will become the sixth woman to hold the distinction of serving as president of the North Carolina Bar Association, preceded in that regard by Rhoda Billings, Betty Quick, Judge Allyson Duncan, Janet Ward Black and the current president, Catharine Arrowood.
Some might argue that once you reach number six, it’s really not that much of a distinction, and that may well be true. On the other hand, the bar association had been in business for more than 90 years when former Chief Justice Billings became the first woman to serve as president in 1991.
Either way you cut it, there’s never a bad time to celebrate the accomplishments of NCBA members, be they male or female. Not only is this the first time that a woman attorney has been in position to succeed another woman attorney as president of the NCBA, but women attorneys are breaking new ground across the state as they continue to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling.
In recent months, one woman attorney has taken over as managing partner of a well-known Charlotte firm, and another woman attorney has been elected chair of her large law firm’s management committee.
These are major accomplishments for any attorney, and for women attorneys in particular, they represent new chapters in a success story that has transpired over the past several decades.
How did they get there? How did the profession get there?
To provide some answers to those questions, let’s hear from the newsmakers themselves, as well as three more women attorneys who should be counted among those who helped make these milestones possible.
The Managing Partner
Catherine Barnes succeeded Pender McElroy as managing partner of James, McElroy & Diehl in Charlotte on July 1, two years after the firm had initiated discussions about a succession plan. McElroy held the position for 30 years.
“There are so many women in the practice who are achieving,” said Barnes, “it is not something that makes you blink your eyes anymore to see a woman at the top, nor should it be. I think we are kind of past that point in history.”
And yet it is history.
“I think to some extent the women have expressed it the most,” Barnes added. “Everyone has been very nice and the people are mostly glowing and happy for me.
“There are women who are a generation ahead of me who had it rougher coming up that I did. They see this in a different light than the women who have been practicing five years and half of their graduating class was women.”
Barnes clerked at the firm following her second year at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and came on full time when she graduated in 1995. Prior to law school she attended Salem State College in Massachusetts and worked two years as a legal secretary at Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson.
“I met my husband (Jeff Barnes) the first day of law school and he practices in Charlotte,” Barnes said. “We have two daughters, one in middle school and one in high school, so we are living the hormonal dream.”
At the firm, things are going well.
“I think having two years to prepare for the transition was helpful,” she said, “and it is extraordinarily helpful having Pender next door. There haven’t been many surprises -- nothing either of us had not contemplated.
“It is helpful to have him to bounce things off of and he has incredible memory of the history of the firm.”
Barnes oversees a workforce of 36 attorneys and 43 additional staff members.
“We are busy,” she said. “We stay busy. People here are hopping all the time. We are making strategic plans for things such as a new computer system, nothing earth-shattering. We are staying busy and in the black.
“We have a successful firm.”
Barnes has a mixed commercial transaction and commercial real estate practice, and has yet to determine how much time she’ll be devoting to her managerial duties.
“We’re figuring that out,” she said. “I would say at this point the managerial aspect of my job is taking any given week 10 to 20 percent of my time. It depends on what is happening in the firm that week and what is happening with the client load.
“Something may not be front burner with the firm but it may be front burner with my clients.”
Her new duties, she added, involve working with the office manager on things such as the finances, building issues, personnel issues and client issues.
“These are the logistics of running any business – the business side of the firm with those things not related to the practice of law but which have to happen for a law firm to run. Most recently I was looking at three different proposals from our insurance carrier to determine what is the best policy for us to have.
“I do enjoy this aspect of it. It would be a really difficult transition if I was a domestic attorney. The nature of my practice is not so far removed from this. I enjoy being useful, and this is really a way that I can be very useful to my law firm.”
At what she describes as a mid-sized firm for Charlotte, Barnes is not over-burdened by layer upon layer of organizational structure.
“We’re not at the size of firms with a lot of committees,” she said. “We have a management committee but that is kind of it. We meet as partners monthly, so if I have something for the firm I will put it on the agenda for the monthly partner meeting.
“We are small enough to have monthly partner meetings and it is small-town democracy: one town, one vote.”
The Management Committee Chair
Julie Theall Earp became chair of Smith Moore Leatherwood’s management committee effective April 1. She practices in Greensboro. The firm has a total of seven offices totaling 174 attorneys and 196 additional staff members.
“The nomination committee pre-vets the candidates,” Earp said, “so I had been visited by my partners, who asked if I would consider it. When they came in I wasn’t sure they weren’t going to fire me, they were so solemn.”
Earp joined the firm straight out of the University of Georgia School of Law in 1986 when, she says, the firm was truly breaking ground in its acceptance and support of women attorneys.
“If there was any ice to be broken at Smith Moore it was probably broken in the mid ‘80s” Earp said. “The firm was well ahead, with leaders such as Don Cowan; there was great collegiality regardless of gender. It was one of the reasons I was drawn to the firm.”
Earp gets the significance of her accomplishment, she just doesn’t want it to define her.
“I don’t want to be remembered as the first woman managing partner,” Earp said. “I want to be remembered for what I did. I think that will be the case. It is interesting to people to who don’t know us, but kind of boring for us. We have 13 committees and six of them are led by women.
“I wear a skirt, but I really think it is the skill set that I was asked to bring to the table. Someone here must think the skills I have are the skills the firm needs right now. It is a great display of faith and I take it very seriously.”
Earp’s experience as a labor and employment lawyer blends the skills of business counselor and litigator, which serve her well in her new role.
“I go on both sides of that,” Earp said. “My undergraduate degree (also University of Georgia) was in business management with major in human resources and organizational development, so I come to management from that vantage point.
“I believe that if you find good people and give them what they need to excel, and you get out of their way, you will be successful. That works in a law firm setting as good as it would work anywhere else. Law firms are about their people.”
Six months in, Earp is still working to find the right balance.
“Honestly so far it has meant burning lots of candles at both ends,” she said “We have three daughters. Two of them are away at school, so that leaves me with a high schooler and she would rather me not be around anyway. I am proud of all three of them.
“I also have clients that I have been close to for many years. I enjoy that part of my work life and don’t want to give that up. I love being their lawyer. I have to balance that with making sure my law firm is well positioned.
“To be effective I need to be present, which means a lot of travel to the 7 offices. But if you ask me in another 6 months you will probably find me doing a mix of practicing law and firm management.
“I hope at some point to have a golf game with my husband, Steve Earp, who practices here.”
Earp grew up on a farm in Delaware, where her family raised tomatoes that were used to make Heinz catsup. This experience gave her a unique perspective on what it meant to work hard.
“Being a farm girl maybe makes me different,” Earp said “From the time I was old enough to know better I was expected to get outside and get things done just like the other kids in the family. There was no special treatment there.
“I am not dissuaded. When things get tough I tend to dig deeper instead of giving up.”
To hear Earp speak about her firm, it’s easy to understand why her partners deemed he well-suited to take on a leadership role.
“I love this firm, Earp said. “I love the people here, I love the ethos, I love the entrepreneurial spirit, I love the giving. It gives more than it takes. There is a reason Smith Moore Leatherwood has been so successful for so long: this firm treats its clients the way it would want to be treated.”
“My job is to make sure all of the hurdles are out of the way so everybody can do what they do best. We have regular management meetings, meeting with leaders of practice and industry teams, and meetings of various committees: recruiting, marketing and compensation.
“Mostly what I do is be present for my lawyers, make sure they have what they need, listening to the market and bringing back information to the firm so we can adapt and change and grow. That is what our clients expect.”
One might think that being a former Miss North Carolina would open a lot of doors, but back in the mid 1980s, those doors were not at the courthouse or at many law firms.
“I still found it difficult to find a job,” recalls Janet Ward Black, who excelled as a student at Davidson and Duke Law School. “I practiced for a short time in Charlotte with a family law firm and ended up going to Rowan County, where I was the first ‘girl lawyer’ to serve as an assistant district attorney.
“Some people treated me like I had two heads and some judges, it took a while for them to be comfortable with my competence.”
Not to be deterred, Black persevered until she gained the respect that she deserved.
“My experience in the DA’s office was a little eye-opening, although I never really perceived myself as a trailblazer,” she said. “Judge Tom Seay was my senior resident judge, and he had a reputation for being a tough taskmaster. It took him a year or so, but after that he thought I was just a guy in a skirt and I was fine, and he trusted my judgment.”
Black moved to Greensboro in 1992 and established herself as a gifted and talented litigator. She opened her own firm, Ward Black Law, in 2006, shortly before becoming president of the NCBA.
“When you went to law school at the time I did, there was never an expectation that you were going to be an entrepreneur,” Black said. “You were going to work at a big firm in a big city because that is what all the Duke lawyers did.
“It was not a plan; it just sort of happened to me, the entrepreneurial role, and I would not trade it for anything. I have great freedom to shape and mold things in a way that is most comfortable for me.”
Just because she and other women attorneys have broken through the glass ceiling doesn’t mean that it no longer exists.
“It’s still there,” Black said. “Particularly in litigation, there is still such a difference. Women choose against litigation as a career and you have relatively few women leading law firms, whether they are small practices or medium.
“I consider us a relatively small firm at 36 people, but if you look around the state at the number of firms that are owned by women, it is still a very small number of them.”
While Black applauds the accomplishments of her female peers, she looks forward to the day when it’s no longer news.
“I think it is fantastic,” she said, “but really it’s a shame that we have to still celebrate that we have women attaining certain status.
“The fact that it is story worthy seems to go against the data, assuming that 50 percent of the law students have been women for over a decade and you still have to look hard to find large firms or firms in general run by women. It indicates there is still a lot of room before we achieve parity.”
One thing that has helped Black achieve success is her involvement in professional organizations, including the NCBA.
“Conceptually it is very hard for lawyers who are running a practice to have peers that can talk to them and are willing to talk to them,” Black said. “The bar association has been one of the few ways for that to get out.
“When you are managing a lot of people, your issues can be the same as the guy down the street making widgets or running a computer company or selling fish. We all have the same issues – handling payroll, insurance, dealing with the person who can’t get along with their supervisor. It is hard to find people to share that information with.
“For me, I have had to look to business peers to find out how to solve some of my business issues. It is hard to find women who own law firms of my size who would be willing to share best practices or another man for that matter. There is built-in competition that makes it difficult to have a group of peers who will act sort of as a board of directors.”
Black credits Melinda Lawrence for drawing her into greater involvement with the NCBA.
“She called me when I got to Greensboro and asked me to serve on the Litigation Section council,” Black said. “Her one phrase was that ‘I never go to a meeting where I don’t come back a better lawyer.’
“Whatever they do in Cary, it created a forum where I could hear what other people were thinking in litigation. I did not have that opportunity for that; the bar association allowed me to keep on top of what was happening and see other best practices in which other peers were participating.
“Otherwise you just get in your own little silo and do the best you can. If you don’t have a way to talk to your peers, how can you make yourself better? You can search the Internet or read books, but that is not the same as the human-to-human connection. I have a problem; let me talk it through.”
Through “exactly” 40 years of practicing law, Betty Quick has lived the change. She was the first woman partner at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, and from 2006-13 she served as managing partner of the firm’s Winston-Salem office, yet another precedent.
“The equation has changed significantly,” Quick said. “Women lawyers holding leadership positions is not just in law firms. The number of women general counsels around the country and the number of women judges has also increased significantly.”
While it was certainly news when she was named a managing partner, the reaction was entirely positive within the firm.
“Men and women 15-20 years ahead of me were enthusiastic,” Quick said. “When I took on this role, the Winston-Salem office was the largest of our offices. Bill Womble Sr., who is 30 years my senior, and others in that senior generation, were very enthusiastic and supportive.
“I can’t say that about the women because I was the most senior!”
Quick’s experience in serving as a managing partner was also very positive, in part because of her ability to interact with staff as well as attorneys.
“I think I was able to gain the trust and respect of people here when I needed to do things and would ask for people to do things,” Quick said. “I think they were very willing to step up and do what they needed to do. I cannot point to anything I can think of where I was ignored.”
Quick also maintained an active practice throughout her management tenure.
“But that is required at Womble Carlyle,” she said. “We don’t want to have lawyers who are just managers. We want lawyers who have skin in the game.
“For lawyers on the management committee, practice group chairs, and office managing partners, we have a reduced billable hour expectation, but it is generally stated that we are still expected to do everything we have done before in terms of maintaining relationships with clients and doing client work.”
The emergence of women attorneys within her firm has not been accidental.
“I don’t know if this was unique to Womble Carlyle,” Quick said, “but I think we have had a very strong and nurturing group of older women in our firm. We call them WOWS: the Women of Womble.
“The equity partners, the more senior women of Womble, have reached out and really made an effort to bring a lot of the younger women in our firm along. We encourage them to get involved in committees in the firm, recruiting, and more community activities. It has been a part of the culture of our firm.
“We have tried to reach out to other women, encouraged them to get involved, encouraged and supported women to become leaders within different areas of the firm, be it a practice group, management committee, whatever it might be. I think women have reacted very well to accepting advice from other women.”
Women, she added, typically bring a special skill set to leadership roles.
“I think women who are in Congress or in the legislature are willing to compromise and work together and get things done,” Quick said. “I think I have seen that with other women who are leaders, not just in law firms but in industry.
“Women have a can do attitude and don’t stand on principles exclusively, looking at a way to compromise and accomplish what needs to be done. Some of the stereotypes of men in leadership positions don’t manifest themselves in women.”
Doris Bray graduated first in her class from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1966. When she became the first female editor-in-chief of the law review, it made the national news.
One would think that she would have had her choice of jobs, but that was not the case.
“The world has changed,” Bray said. “The young girls don’t even understand it.
“There were three female graduates in my law school class and the other two were not interested in being lawyers. One was in her mid-30s and one was in her mid-50s. One wanted to be a law librarian and one want to be a trust officer. I was basically it.
“It was very hostile at that time. All the guys thought I was there to find a husband.”
Bray gained the acceptance of her male counterparts, even those who doubted the faculty would ever allow her to oversee the law review, once they realized she was serious and she was smart. But that didn’t open any doors for her, so she became the Fourth Circuit’s first female law clerk.
“I clerked for Judge Spencer Bell in Charlotte,” Bray said, “and I have Dick Phillips to thank for that. After that Judge Sobeloff from Maryland could not stand it so he went out and hired a woman too!
“When I was looking for jobs, the firms in Charlotte were not interested. I was the star of my class. One asked me if I would stay in the library and not see clients. A lot of them would not respond to my inquiries.”
Once again, Dean Phillips who intervened.
“Somebody at Smith Moore called Dick Phillips and asked him who they should hire to upgrade their associates, and he told them to hire me,” Bray recalls. “McNeill Smith had taught me constitutional law.
“It was a big fight before they would hire me. There was a big argument about whether they could treat me the way they treated a male. So they called me up and said, ‘We’ve had a discussion and have decided we can treat you like everybody else,’ which is all I wanted.”
Given a chance to prove herself, Bray moved to Greensboro and ran with it.
“I was a single mother with a five-year-old,” Bray said, “and I never made that the firm’s problem. I handled that, nanny and everything.
“They had two women before me but neither was ever going to be a partner. One was Mr. Smith’s daughter who wanted to practice with her father for a year or two and the other did mostly real estate and was never on any kind of partnership track.
“I was basically the first woman. Nobody but Smith Moore would take a chance on me.”
Bray was also the first woman in her firm to practice business law.
“There definitely were no women in business,” Bray said, “not in my firm and there were none in the big New York City firms. They put them all in family law which included estate planning and that kind of thing. They had never had a woman in business before. I was a pioneer, no doubt about it.
“But I don’t think I ever had any trouble. I had a mother who was a very dynamic businesswoman, so I never thought I couldn’t do anything. I refused to be anything but first chair. The other lawyers in the firm accepted that almost immediately.”
Her toughest convert was her mentor, Braxton Schell.
“He was the one who was more skeptical than most,” she said. “We geed and hawed and I knew how to do things the way he wanted to. We were starting to do public offerings and we would walk into a meeting with 20 men and everyone would gasp.
“He never mentioned it – it never occurred to him to do so – and because he didn’t pay any attention to it nobody else did. The first time we listed a company with the New York Stock Exchange they would not let me go down on the floor.
“They gave me a big orchid and stuck me up in the gallery and I had done all the work.”
Bray stayed with Smith Moore for 20 years. In 1987 she joined Schell, fellow partners Bill Aycock and Mike Abel, and Paul Livingston to form Schell Bray Aycock Abel & Livingston, where she continues to practice.
“I have had a lot of firsts in my life,” Bray said. “People were amazingly receptive … once I got in the door.”