Women at law: Local female attorneys speak out about working in the male-dominated legal field

Tuesday, November 18, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com
Deidre Jewel is an attorney with the Lichtenegger, Weiss and Fetterhoff law firm in Cape Girardeau.

A 2006 American Bar Association report found that in 2000, women made up 47 percent of law students --- and only 27 percent of attorneys. By 2004, women represented 49 percent of all law students, but still, men continue to dominate the career field. Two Southeast Missouri attorneys share their thoughts on life, law, and being a woman.

"I always knew I wanted to be an attorney," says Deidre Jewel, attorney at Lichtenegger, Weiss & Fetterhoff in Cape Girardeau. "I don't know what it was about it, but I always felt that was the pathway I should be on."

Born and raised in Cape Girardeau, Jewel attended Southeast Missouri State University, where her father taught biology. Though he wanted her to be a nurse, she pursued her own direction, later attending law school at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

In the past 13 years, she's worked as a public defender in Mississippi County; in general practice and utility co-ops in Jefferson City; and insurance law in St. Louis, but today she focuses her efforts on bankruptcies and Social Security disability.

"In this area, I feel like I give people relief and change in their life circumstances," says Jewel. "They get a new start, and they can do better and be better. That's very important to me." She adds, "It sounds corny, but for the most part, people come in during a crisis. They're not working, they have personal problems, they're having horrible financial difficulties. When my job is over, the case is completed, and most people are better off when they leave than when they got here. That's really what it's all about."

Jewel has worked on about 600 bankruptcy cases since joining the firm. At any given time, she's likely to have 60 open bankruptcy cases and 200 Social Security cases, all in various stages.

"What I love the most is also the most challenging," says Jewel. "People in a crisis don't understand that just because they need something, it doesn¿t mean they're going to get it. Need doesn't determine a win. We have to follow legal principles, and it's hard for clients to step back and wait.

For me, it's a challenge not being able to give them immediate gratification for what they want when it comes to Social Security."

Despite being one of the few female attorneys in Southeast Missouri, Jewel says she's never experienced gender-based disrespect or discrimination.

"I think the challenge is less about the work and more about juggling," says Jewel, who is also a single mom and active in her church. When it comes to balancing her priorities, she says she couldn't do it without her support network.

"I say I'm a single parent, but I'm not really single," she says. "I have a great mom, and support from my friends and church really keep me going."

She wishes there were more women in law, but thinks this is coming closer to reality: Law school classes are nearing 50-50 in gender distribution, and some law schools are actively recruiting female students.

"Women bring something different to law, they have good things to offer," says Jewel. "Not that men can't be compassionate and kind, but I think all people want is for someone to talk to and listen to them. Women may be better suited for that area."

One reason women may steer clear of law, says Jewel, is because of the time it takes to get a degree: four years of undergraduate work, plus three years of law school. "That's a long time to be putting other plans on hold," she says. She adds that young women may think the option is not available to them, that they're not smart enough, or they're afraid of not knowing what to expect.

"Do it! Whatever obstacles you find, there is a way to figure out the time and funding if you want to," says Jewel. "You don't want to look back and think 'Oh, I wish I would have done that.' If you at least tried, that's a better way to go."

Kathleen Wolz, attorney and partner at Cook, Barkett, Maguire & Ponder in Cape Girardeau, started out in public relations before doing a complete 180 and pursuing law.

"I was always interested in law," says Wolz. "I like the fact that every day is something different. It's a challenge." After completing her undergraduate work at Southeast Missouri State University, Wolz worked in public relations at Southeast Missouri Hospital, where she met local attorney Dan Grimm. When he learned that she was considering law school, he encouraged her to go for it, and soon she was enrolled in the School of Law at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

In the past 20 years, Wolz has worked in various law offices in Cape Girardeau, as well as the legal department for General Motors in St. Louis. Her current work involves researching issues, writing briefs and doing other trial work for personal injury cases.

"Most of the cases we do are cases I believe in," says Wolz. "The individuals we work with have been hurt in some way and it's gratifying to sit down and hear their problems and use my knowledge to help them."

As a female attorney, Wolz recalls feeling intimidated when she first began work.

"I decided early on to let my work speak for itself and not worry about whether I was a man or a woman," she says. She believes that anyone who proves herself capable of doing a good job is unlikely to face negative treatment. However, she does think that women who are aggressive at work may be viewed more negatively than men who have the same characteristics. Wolz, like Jewel, has struggled most with the work-family dilemma.

"I think the biggest challenge has been balancing my workload with raising my two daughters," she says. "I want to do right by them and do right by my job, too." Finding a job in a smaller town like Cape and narrowing her career focus has allowed her more flexibility. That, in addition to support from her husband, has made all the difference in managing her responsibilities.

Wolz thinks women may avoid the field of law because of the long hours, especially when first starting out. It's intimidating to enter a male-dominated field, and it's especially difficult to balance a family with a career in law.

The best advice Wolz has to offer is the same advice she gave a former intern, who is now attending law school: "You can do it, but you have to want it more than anything else. If you keep that up, you'll be able to find the right job and manage it all."

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