Women's Leadership Forum: Established women in the law offer advice, share experience


– Photo by John Meiu

The Women’s Leadership Forum was held March 24 at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. Taking part in the Women’s Leadership Forum were (seated, left to right) Detroit Mercy Law Dean Phyllis Crocker, Erika Davis of Butler Davis PLLC, and Sarah Gale-Barbantini of Meemic Insurance Company; along with (standing, left to right) forum moderator Kristin Murphy of Brooks Kushman PC, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Denise Langford Morris,  and Deborah Hebert of Collins, Einhorn, Farrell PC.

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Denise Langford Morris didn't sugarcoat the challenges that her audience of young female law students and new lawyers might face in their careers.

"It's not what happens to you in life," said Morris. "It's how you deal with it. It may seem insurmountable, but you have to stay focused and keep going. You have to jump back up and keep moving, because it's hard to hit a moving target."

The Women's Bar Association and the State Bar of Michigan Young Lawyers Section presented "The Women's Leadership Forum" on Thursday, March 24 at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

The event was intended to provide the opportunity for female law students and young women lawyers to hear the experiences and advice of established women in the field. The panelists represented a broad cross-section of attorneys from private practice, major firms and academia as well as a judge.

They included moderator Kristin Murphy of Brooks Kushman PC; Detroit Mercy Law Dean Phyllis Crocker; Erika Davis of Butler Davis PLLC; Sarah Gale-Barbantini of Meemic Insurance Company; Deborah Hebert of Collins, Einhorn, Farrell PC; Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Denise Langford Morris; and Kathy Zelenock of Dickinson Wright PLLC.

The panelists talked about the importance of networking and building professional relationships.

"When I was young, we didn't call it networking. We called it keeping in touch," said Crocker. "The people you know now (in law school), may come back 20 years from now and be important to what happens to you."

"My mother influenced me," said Morris. "She always said 'Stay in touch with your friends. Let them know that you miss them and that you're thinking of them.'"

Hebert suggested that the young lawyers look for ways to expand beyond simply trying to be the best lawyer possible. She said that her shyness meant she had to be innovative in her methods for mixing with other attorneys.

"I had the idea that we should form an appellate section in the State Bar," she said. "I very quietly, in my office, created an invitation and sent it to fellow practitioners. We complied with the requirements of the bar and created an appellate practice section. It was a good way for me to get out there and make some connections."

Crocker talked about the difference between internal and external challenges.

"I lack patience," she said. "Being a Midwesterner, I feel like I have to relearn patience every spring. It's a good lesson and a reminder that I'm not just impatient waiting for spring, but that I'm always impatient and I have to work on that.

"But then there are challenges that are external. The inequalities of our society like sexism and racism. It affects me on a daily basis and when we can address those things, we should."

When the topic turned to balance between work and personal life, all agreed that it continues to be a challenge. The law is seldom a 9 to 5 job and it can be difficult managing personal responsibilities in the time that remains.

"It's a balancing and multi-tasking situation for all women, because that's what we do," said Morris.

Zelenock said some of her young acquaintances were puzzled by her long hours as a young lawyer.

"A friend of mine said, 'Are you good at your job?' And I said I was. He said 'Most people can do their job in 40 hours, but you seem to need a lot more.'"

"It's not just a 'mom challenge,'" she continued. "It's a relationship challenge. It's important to keep your whole life integrated, as best you can. You prioritize, then re-prioritize. And you have to realize that your priorities at the moment won't be your priorities in six months."

On the subject of family support, Davis told a poignant anecdote about taking her son with her to Washington, D.C., where she was sworn in to practice at the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The thing I will always remember is my son pulling me aside and saying, 'Mom, I am so proud of you.' That was my greatest moment."