Long before there was "lean in," the term "work/life balance," or affinity groups, Joan Hall was working to promote women in the legal profession. When she became the first woman to chair the hiring committee at Jenner & Block in 1976, her impact was immediate: That year, almost half of the associates (seven out of 16) hired were women.
And she didn't stop once she got female lawyers through the door. "We'd organize lunches for women about business generation," says Hall. "It was clear to me that the way to succeed was by working very hard and developing good working relationships with [clients]." Indeed, Hall was ahead of her time—so ahead that her audience didn't always immediately grasp her message. "Back then, nobody was talking about business development to women or anyone else," says Susan Levy, Jenner's current managing partner. A Nebraska native, Hall graduated from Yale Law School in 1965—one of only seven women in the class. She landed at Jenner because it was one of the relatively few firms willing to interview women (Hall was the firm's second female lawyer). Eventually, she made history for women at the firm and beyond: A commercial litigator (who also did extensive pro bono work on prisoners' rights), Hall was the first woman on Jenner's executive committee. She was also elected the first female chair of the American Bar Association's litigation section and the fourth woman admitted to the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Then there are the personal firsts—such as having the distinction of being Jenner's first pregnant lawyer. "No one had heard of maternity leave, and I didn't have any discussions about it with others," says Hall, who took a week off after delivering each of her two sons. "In those days, you just put one foot in front of the other."
Though Hall never complained about the difficulty of juggling family and work, she often initiated discussions about family issues at the firm's women's lunches. "She brought up personal issues—about child raising," says Barbara Steiner, a litigation partner at Jenner. "She made you feel you didn't have to do it alone. . . . She proved that [being a Jenner lawyer and a mother] could be done."
Though Hall is now retired from the firm, she's carrying on her "feminist agenda" on a different stage. For the last 15 years or so, she's played a key role in starting and helping direct the Young Women's Leadership Charter School. The Chicago-based program put her on the radar screen of Oprah Winfrey, and the media tycoon enlisted her help in opening a similar school in South Africa.
As for resting on her laurels as a trailblazer, Hall says: "I was not conscious I was a pioneer because I was working so hard. . . . I'm type A, and I just keep moving."