L-R Seth Kirschenbaum, Judge Dorothy Toth Beasley and Virginia Arnold were part of a panel discussion during the State bar of Georgia YLD Women in the Profession Committee 100th Anniversary Celebration. Held at the State Bar Headquarters on Aug. 24, 2016. (John Disney/Daily Report)
The State Bar of Georgia celebrated the 100th anniversary of admitting women to the practice of law on Tuesday evening with a look back and a look forward.
Speaking on a panel that capped the event at the bar headquarters, Senior Judge Dorothy Beasley, retired from the Georgia Court of Appeals, challenged a packed room of women lawyers to seek leadership roles in the profession—not for recognition but for a purpose.
“It’s not about getting in a position. It’s about how we’re going to serve,” said Beasley, who became the first woman judge in Fulton County in 1977 and the first woman on the state Court of Appeals in 1984. Since her retirement in 1999, she has remained active as a mediator and a volunteer for justice-related causes. She made a few suggestions to the women lawyers in the room: assist immigrants, particularly those jailed because of their illegal status; help special needs children; and work against the death penalty.
Beasley, who helped write the state’s legislation on capital punishment as an assistant attorney general, expressed dismay over the six people who have been executed in Georgia this year. “Let’s get some of these things done that society needs,” Beasley said.
She noted that the state bar now has 14,000 women members and that they are organized under the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers and the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys: “Fourteen thousand women can raise a very big voice.”
Then Beasley brought the crowd to its feet in cheers by asking for a standing ovation in recognition of one young woman lawyer: Morgan Clemons, who organized the event.
Clemons, an Aldridge Pite associate who counsels financial institutions, chairs the bar’s Young Lawyers Division Women in the Profession committee. She’s been working for the past year to organize the 100th anniversary event—which included an exhibit that will remain open at the bar headquarters through Sept. 23.
The exhibit includes news clips, documents and even clothing that tell the story of the struggle and ultimate victory of the first woman lawyer in Georgia, Minnie Hale, and all those who followed.
Hale became the first woman to graduate from a Georgia law school in 1911, when state law barred women from practicing. She sued for admittance but lost her case before the Georgia Supreme Court.
“A woman by reason of her sex is ineligible to become a member of the bar in this state,” Justice Samuel Atkinson wrote in a 1916 opinion for the case known as Ex Parte Hale. The law was so clear, the justice said there was no need to cite cases.
The state bar also turned down Hale’s request for admittance following a debate that was re-enacted at Tuesday’s event by male lawyers and judges reading from minutes of the meeting a century ago. Opponents argued that no woman should work at any job outside the home. One even predicted that if the state allowed women to practice law, it would eventually have to put one on the Supreme Court. The vote was 29 in favor of admitting women, 45 against.
Hale had been lobbying the Georgia Legislature for five years to allow women entry to the practice of law. Losing at the Supreme Court—and the state bar—ultimately brought enough attention to the cause to help Hale and her supporters win at the Capitol. The General Assembly approved An Act to Permit Females to Practice Law in 1916. Hale was licensed to practice that same year.
According to a recent snapshot of the profession from the National Association of Legal Placement, roughly 19.5 percent of law firm partners in Atlanta and 45 percent of associates are now women.
Beasley confidently predicted those numbers will increase because more than half of law students are women.
Clemons said Beasley provided her favorite quote for a part of the historical exhibit that takes note of changing business attire for women lawyers. The question asked in a video interview was, “Is your power suit pants or a skirt?”
Beasley’s answer: “I prefer a robe.”