Putting women in places of legal power

In deciding a major, a career or even in trying to find the motivation to study, a key consideration is always whether or not it’s something worthwhile, or whether or not it will have any sort of impact. In a lecture jointly sponsored by the Warren College Law and Society program and the California Western Law School, Mary Schroeder, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, attempted to respond to the question, “”Are women having any impact on the legal profession?”” The answer from Schroeder was a resounding and captivating yes.

Tibora Girczyz-Blum

Schroeder is certainly a woman who should know. Since 1969, her career has been a run of firsts. She was the first woman from Arizona with a paid client to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court; the first woman in the state to become an associate, then partner at a major law firm; and the first woman to sit on the Arizona Court of Appeals. Those accomplishments led to an appointment to the U.S. District Court of Appeals of the 9th Circuit in 1979.

But before that string of successes, there were numerous trials to be endured. Schroeder received her bachelor’s degree in history from Swarthmore College and her jurisprudence degree from the University of Chicago Law School. One of six women in a class of 160, experiences of sexual discrimination at the University of Chicago were common and constant, ranging from being picked on by professors to being segregated from male students, according to Schroeder. Schroeder recognizes that in addition to realizing the importance such experiences had on her own determination to succeed as a female lawyer, it would be of key importance to future female law students.

“”Women defying the stereotype of submissiveness helped women who were to follow,”” Schroeder said. “”It is because of them that women now make up 50 percent of law students.””

With a law degree from the University of Chicago and a successful four-year stint as a civil attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Schroeder came to Arizona looking to start a private practice. It took her six months before she got a break. Attorney Monroe McKay, now a judge on the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, helped her obtain a law clerk position with former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Jesse Udall.

After an introduction from UCSD political science professor Peter Irons, Schroeder discussed her own experiences in the legal profession, getting laughs as well as laments. She ultimately focused on what she considers to be the two major impacts of women in the legal profession, namely mobility and flexibility, meaning the increased ability to move from one firm to another and the fluidity of career goals. Before women formed a presence as lawyers, people stayed at one firm and strove for a small number of elevated positions. Now lawyers switch from one firm to another quite regularly and can be expected to achieve any number of positions.

Although Schroeder agreed that there is “”still a structured hierarchy”” within the legal profession, as a result of the increase of practicing female lawyers, that structure is “”much less stratified.””

Schroeder’s aspirations for women in the legal profession go well beyond her own achievements. Recognizing that only 20 percent of justices are women, Schroeder said that there are possibilities within the United States, and also sees opportunities for advancement in “”cultures where women are regarded as possessions by husbands and fathers.””

Believing that the legal profession serves as an example for other fields, Schroeder said that there is a need for action legally, politically and socially to “”give an assist to those who ask for assistance in protecting women from the violence and degradation they receive in other countries.””

But there is a specific dream that Schroeder has for women in the legal profession. Recognizing that such a goal will take some time before being realized, Schroeder hopes that eventually the influence of female lawyers will extend to a situation where “”the oath of office will be administered by a woman supreme court chief justice to a woman president.””

The lecture was one in a series of Law and Society presentations, all of which have different aims as far as speaker and content. For Schroeder’s talk, the program’s sponsors were “”hoping she would get into current case law where women are making a difference or may have some kind of impact in the future,”” said Barbara Sanchez, program director of the Law and Society program.

The lecture served not only as an information session for political science students, but also for women curious about the impact they personally could have in taking the law as a profession.

“”I’m interested in going to law school,”” said Jenny Hoang, an Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore. “”I thought it’d be interesting to see if there’s a point of being a woman in law. It’s different than hearing a man talk about it.””