A recent e-bar announced the installation of Caryn Coppedge McNeill, the new president of the North Carolina Bar Association, and the election of the president-elect, Jacqueline D. Grant. A demanding, virtually full-time job spanning three years, the NCBA presidency often is held by big-firm lawyers who can commit such time to the profession and continue to feed their families. What’s not as common—the appointment of back-to-back female presidents.
Having practiced for 36 years, I believe it’s only happened once before.* My first reaction to this girl power moment had me nodding “ ‘bout time.” But, my second reaction was in response to the end of the paragraph about each woman. Listed after her firm was the phrase “where she has practiced her entire career.” Yes, I thought. I’m not surprised. Firm longevity is getting rare, but I’ll bet women constitute, percentage-wise, more of those who stay with the same firm from bar passage to retirement.
I have every right to provide some stereotypical conclusions. So, please forgive these memories of the last three and a half decades of practicing law. Let’s start with a newspaper article about my husband and me after we won the regionals of a trial competition in law school. We weren’t married then, or dating. The newspaper referred to me as “Miss Kelley” and to him as “Sousa.” Skip ahead to a trial I had in the ’80s in a nearby small town. Lugging a boxy briefcase up the 400 courthouse stairs, I gladly accepted a deputy’s offer to carry it in for me. I still had a “banker’s box” on my left hip. Once in the courtroom, opposing counsel and I spent a good bit of time talking. The gavel banged, the judge took the bench, and everyone sat down. Where was my briefcase with my motions file? Locating the deputy beside the bench, I mouthed “where is it?” With a kindhearted look of “my bad,” he pointed to it underneath the court reporter’s desk. He didn’t think I was a lawyer, despite my suit and my “suitcase.”
I married my trial partner the year after law school, and a few years later, our first baby was on the way. Maternity wear back then looked like tents. I had one or two pairs of huge elastic waist pants and a couple of big sweatshirts, but I wore those to the office – if I ever did — only at the very end when I would have subconsciously welcomed being fired. Otherwise, I wore dresses, some with icky bow ties. I had my first child on his due date, and I worked the evening before to finish a federal court motion for summary judgment. I still have the memo I wrote to our office manager, asking that no one disclose my maternity leave or that I had been pregnant. I drove up a nearby hill with my little guy in his car seat to get clear reception and check my voicemail messages. I remember crying after ignoring his crying (muffled by two closed doors between his nursery and our bedroom) during a phone call to a client in New York. I returned to work only eight weeks later. Back at the office, it was rare to take time off for anything that wasn’t considered a necessity, like doctors’ appointments. Thoughts of reducing my hours never crossed my mind; to pay for our bundle of love, we needed both paychecks more than ever. Flex time – what was that?
Trust me; I applaud the young women of today. Wearing their slimming, stretchy and comfortable clothing, they are enjoying the fruits of the labor of women who came before—the ones who helped employers realize that what a firm might lose in maternity-leave revenue, it would gain in increased loyalty from its female workforce. I may wish I had dressed more comfortably, taken more time off to spend with my babies, or adjusted my work schedule. And, I may have made more money had I changed firms a time or two or three. But, I will forever be grateful for landing a job at a law firm right after a summer clerkship, making partner when I was too naïve to understand just what that meant, practicing law for so many years with good, supportive lawyers, and retaining the same direct phone number and email address for decades. Familiarity. Comfort. Consistency.
Maybe it’s a woman thing.
Bettie Kelley Sousa is a partner with the Raleigh law firm Smith Debnam, where she has practiced her entire career.
* Editor’s note: The author is correct that only once before in NCBA history have women been elected to serve as president in consecutive years: Catharine Biggs Arrowood of Parker Poe in Raleigh served as president in 2014-15 and Shelby Duffy Benton, who hails from the very small firm of Benton Family Law in Goldsboro, served as president in 2015-16. Jackie Grant, therefore, will be the fourth woman in five years to serve as NCBA president when she takes office next summer.