Mar/Apr
2016

Careers for Women In Law: Choosing a Career in the Legal Field

Written by Sarah Oslund Photography by Fagan Studios
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Choosing a career in the field of law is a decision more and more women are making today. Since 1992, women’s representation in law school is nearing 50 percent. As of February 2014, there were nearly 110,000 female members of the American Bar Association comprising 33 percent of the organization. 

Even though this number is growing, there is still a long way to go. By increasing the representation of women lawyers and judges, our legal system will be more reflective of our diverse population. Women bring an understanding of the impact of law as it relates to the lives of women and girls and help ensure the real-world applications of the law is understood. 

 PICKING THE RIGHT PATH

Cheyenne Sanborn, a paralegal with Dunlap & Seeger, P.A., started working for the law firm when she was still in high school. As a teenager, the firm hired her to help in their office with administrative tasks. “During that time, I had the chance to see inside the law firm, and I loved it,” she recalls. 

Olmsted County District Court Judge Pamela King also found herself drawn to the legal profession after moonlighting as a guardian ad litum for Dodge County. “Being in the courtroom and seeing what the legal system was all about piqued my interest,” Judge King recalls. The experience prompted her to apply to William Mitchell Law School and pursue a career in the field. She was appointed by Governor Dayton in 2015 and now sits as one of Olmsted County’s three female judges.

Lisa Swenson, managing attorney in the Third District’s Office of the Public Defender, came into her legal career in a different manner. “I had an English degree from a liberal arts college,” she says, “and it didn’t make me very employable.” Lisa always had an interest in the law, so she decided to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). “I did well enough to get into law school,” she says, “and thought ‘Why not?”

FINDING A FIRM

Lisa quickly discovered, however, that even with a law degree, it could be difficult to find work. Her husband had recently gotten a job at St. Mary’s University in Winona, so she set about looking for a position there. “I sent out resumes to every law firm in Winona and made contact with as many attorneys as I could,” she recalls. But back then, in 1993, there were only a handful of female attorneys in the city, and it was the first time in Lisa’s life that she felt she was treated differently because of her gender. “I had to work as a bank teller for several months before I was offered a job as the compliance officer for that bank,” she says. Three years later, Lisa was finally hired at the Winona County attorney’s office, where she began honing her skills in the field before ultimately taking on her current role with the Public Defender’s Office.

Attorney Melissa Saunders, who works at Dunlap & Seeger, also notes the challenges related to obtaining employment post-graduation. “Hiring practices have changed drastically, and law schools have had to adjust,” she says. Many of today’s graduates, she says, end up leaving law school with huge debt and limited job options. 

BEYOND THE COURTROOM

It’s easy to assume that if someone is going to school for a law degree, their goal is to become a lawyer. But that is not always the case. 

“The field of law is very diverse,” says Claire Langton-Yanowitz, an estate planning attorney and partner at Yanowitz Law Firm, PLLC. “You can be a judge, politician, private practice attorney, litigator or work for the government,” she explains. An internet search confirms dozens of other career options that are available post-law school. 

A CPA with Smith, Schafer & Associates, LTD, Jill Eggerichs Rock seems an unlikely law student. And as she completes her final year of classes at Mitchell Hamline Law School, Jill has “no intention of changing career fields.” She started law school a few years ago because “it seemed like it might be fun.” And while most people probably wouldn’t describe four years of stressful test-taking and tedious paper-writing as “fun,” Jill is doing it to help her clients. “I’ll apply my degree to my work as a CPA,” she says, “and be a better overall business advisor.”

A HELPING HAND

The fulfillment that comes with helping others is a common reason females find such enjoyment in this challenging career field. Jill Frieders practices family law for the offices of O’Brien & Wolf, LLP. “Receiving a positive outcome for your client is one of the greatest highlights of the job,” she says. By pursuing a career in family law, Jill knew she could help others, particularly children. She describes the cases in which she has been able to help get children out of abusive situations as the most rewarding. 

Claire also cites her ability to bring positive changes into the lives of others as her reason for being passionate about law. “I enjoy educating people about their options and, through estate planning, helping families plan for their future,” she says. 

CHANGES AND CHALLENGES

The origin of law dates back to a time before humans were even able to write down the rules by which they wanted to live. But the current state of the legal system is plagued with challenges unrelated to the legal clients themselves.  From the increasing expense of law school to the introduction of “internet lawyers” to the constantly changing regulations, “there is a new ‘normal’ in the legal field today,” says Melissa. With dual roles as a law student and a CPA, Jill Eggerichs Rock is doubly concerned about the role the World Wide Web is playing in the legal system today. “The growing number of people using Internet ‘legal services’ is very dangerous,” Jill says. While people might think they are saving money by drafting their own documents, doing so online can result in a number of problems, ultimately leaving them unprotected, she explains.

Beyond technology, the list of ways the legal profession is changing is almost as extensive as the list of careers one can pursue with the degree. “The government is forever passing new regulations,” says Claire. And in order to provide their clients with the best and most timely advice, lawyers need to constantly stay abreast of those changes. 

THE FUTURE OF WOMEN IN LAW

Females in the field face greater challenges than the men they work with. Women are not only breaking barriers to become part of what used to be an “old boy’s network,” but they also face the criticism of trying to balance a successful career with a stable and happy home life.

“The stresses and time commitment of the job can be consuming,” says Melissa. “I think women—and men—struggle to find a work/life balance.” Melissa has learned from many local female attorneys for the past four decades. “Those individuals were trailblazers,” she says, “and have been gracious enough to share their stories with the younger generations of female attorneys in Rochester.”

Judge King recalls that when she was a young lawyer, there were not a lot of female attorneys or judges. “I’ve watched the women’s attorney group in Rochester grow,” she says. And while it may be some time before the number of women is equal to men in the legal field, Judge King believes women have come a long way already in bridging that gap, especially in Olmsted County.

A REWARDING CAREER

Law affects every part of our lives, from driving a car to getting a job to renting a house. Having knowledge in various aspects of law can increase your value as an employee, but for those interested in pursuing a full-time career in the field, eventually narrowing your focus will be critical to success.

Currently wrapping up her final semester, Jill is all too familiar with the challenges that come with such a major decision as pursuing a law degree. She strongly encourages those considering the legal path to know why they want to go that route. “I think a lot of people go to law school without a plan,” she says. “Have a plan.”

Melissa and Cheyenne both encourage people interested in law to reach out to attorneys about opportunities for shadowing and mentoring. “We would be happy to have a cup of coffee or even an email conversation,” Melissa says. 

“And seek out volunteer opportunities while you’re in law school,” Cheyenne says. “It will help you pin point areas of interest and give you real-world experience at the same time.”

Judge King has a different recommendation. “Go into medicine!” she jokes. All kidding aside, Judge King recommends any woman looking to pursue a career in the legal field read the book “Her Honor” by author Lori Sturdevant. “It’s about Rosalie Wahl—the first woman appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court,” she explains. “It’s a constant reminder to me about how I stand on the shoulders of the women that did this job before me.”

Sarah Oslund is owner of Inspire Writing & Consulting, inspiremn.net.

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