While it might seem that I spend all of my time exploring Vintage Vegas, most of my time is actually spent in the pursuit of truth, justice and the jurisprudential way. In other words, I am a lawyer. As such, I do lawyerly things. Much to my delight, every now and again, these two aspects of my life intersect. And so, on a fine Thursday afternoon not long ago, I attended a luncheon celebrating the 30th anniversary of SNAWA, the Southern Nevada Association of Women Attorneys.
The first meeting of SNAWA was held on August 15, 1979, in Shelley Berkley’s children’s playroom. Yes, that is the same Shelley Berkley who is the representative for Nevada’s 1st Congressional District (where I now live). Shelley, who was the first President of SNAWA, was the speaker at the anniversary luncheon. What was likely a record SNAWA crowd turned out to hear her war stories about the early days when female attorneys were a rarity in this town, hear encouraging words from a succession of past presidents, enjoy the camaraderie of our sister attorneys, and eat chocolate cake.
SNAWA was founded with the intent to allow women to network and offer each other support and guidance for personal and professional development. And it has an impressive track record. Over the years, SNAWA’s members, and especially its leaders, have gone on to become successful politicians, highly-rated practitioners, judges, and state bar leaders.
Aside from monthly meetings, early events included a judicial reception, held in the home of now retired Justice Miriam Shearing; a annual barbeque, hosted by Sally Loehrer, now a District Court Judge; and a New Admittees Brunch hosted by Shelley Berkley to welcoming attorneys recently admitted to the Nevada Bar. While locations have changed over the years, the judicial reception and New Admittees Brunch became annual traditions. The barbeque evolved into a “Thanksgiving in September” event hosted every year by Elana Hatch, a member of the Nevada State Bar Board of Governors, and her husband, Ben Graham, former Chief District Attorney. (Elana and Ben host dinners like this throughout each fall for a number of causes and they are absolutely fabulous –a definite perk of lawyering in Vegas!)
When the Boyd School of Law opened, SNAWA formed the SNAWA Foundation and transformed its successful “First Chance/Last Chance CLE” event into a fundraising effort to support scholarships for second or third year female law students. The “First Chance/Last Chance” refers to the need for attorneys to complete their annual required Continuing Legal Education credits to maintain their licenses. SNAWA makes this duty a bit less tedious by offering a variety of informative programs, and presenting them early in the year – a “first chance” for the diligent and a “last chance” for slackers up against the grace period deadline.
SNAWA also holds monthly lunch meetings with speakers. I enjoy attending these meetings, as I invariably have the opportunity to meet with other women attorneys, many now close to half my age. It’s very nice to be in a room filled with lawyers, and have the majority of them be female. That’s not an experience I get anywhere else –not in a law firm (at least, none I’ve been in) and not in a courtroom.
Many people, especially those of the male gender, may not understand why the support of other female attorneys is important. After all, women do make up a substantial part of the legal profession these days. But women like Shelley and the other founding SNAWA members were definitely in the minority in those days; many were frequently mistaken for secretaries; others were offered only secretarial positions. It is all too easy for any minorities to get shut out. Once those doors close, it can be damned hard to get them open again. But an organization like SNAWA, allowing women to network with each other, is one way to do it.
At my very first job interview for a legal position, the male attorney who had apparently found my resume sufficiently impressive to interview me, ended that meeting with the admonition that since I had a child, I should stay home with her rather than use the law degree I earned while carrying her. I smiled (although perhaps gritted my teeth would be a better description), shook his hand politely, and said that I needed to keep that child fed and housed. I found a job, and fed and housed that child, who is now grown. But for much of her childhood, I kept a certain cover from the ABA Journal tacked to my bulletin board. On the cover was a quote from a judge who, in open court, proclaimed “I don’t think women should be lawyers.” Those who think that sentiment no longer lingers simply aren’t paying attention.
I graduated from law school in the late 80s, a decade later than Shelley and the others who formed SNAWA thirty years ago. As annoying and frustrating as my experiences were, I know I had it better than they did. Because they did such a fantastic job of proving that women can do this job, a few more doors were open to me than had been open for them. I can only hope that I’ve helped open a few more doors for the women who come after me.