Outgoing North Carolina Bar President Catharine Arrowood (’73, ’76) leads by example

When Catharine Arrowood (’73, ’76) attended Wake Forest Law, it was a different time. In 1973, women were just beginning to gain a foothold in careers such as law that were traditionally reserved for men.

No jury is going to believe a girl. Silly, right? Of course. But, at the time, people believed it.

That stuck with Arrowood, whose term as president of the North Carolina Bar Association (NCBA) is coming to an end this weekend.

Arrowood knew the law even before she stepped into her first law school class. Her father was a prominent lawyer, and she was already familiar with the North Carolina Bar.

Her law class of some 120 students included a handful of women — 10 or 11, she recalls.

“What I experienced was similar to Sandra Day O’Connor; some men in the class did not want women there,” she told members of Women In Law during a presentation at Wake Forest on April 1.

It was 1976 and Arrowood had just gotten a great education, having earned her bachelor’s degree in politics, also from Wake Forest. She served as an associate editor of the Wake Forest Law Review. Surely, a great career was imminent.

Arrowood, however, described the time following graduation as “interesting.”

“I had been to Bar meetings, so surely I could find a job. It didn’t work out that way. But I didn’t want to work with my dad, because cause everywhere I went they called me his girl.”

Her father, I. Murchison Biggs, practiced law in Lumberton for more than 50 years and is a member of the NCBA General Practice Hall of Fame.

Arrowood eventually landed a job as an associate attorney general for the N.C. Department of Justice, for whom she handled antitrust matters, before joining Sanford Cannon Adams and McCullough, in 1977, now Parker Poe, which is based in Raleigh, but has offices throughout the Southeast. She’s been a partner there since 1982.

Today she litigates and arbitrates for both large and small businesses and has considerable experience with regulated companies. Among her clients are educational institutions, utilities, insurance companies, accounting and law firms, healthcare and biotech firms, banks and commercial aerospace companies.

“In this day and age, I think it is amazing to have that much longevity,” she said of working at the same place for nearly 40 years.

The few women in private practice in North Carolina in 1976 were not helpful, Arrowood remembers. “So I vowed I would never fail to help any woman law student who needed advice,” she said.

Arrowood is a native of Robeson County and a 1969 graduate of Lumberton High School. She was elected president of the NCBA in 2014 and this weekend hands over the reins to Shelby Duffy Benton of Goldsboro.

“This is first time in the N.C. Bar history with back-to-back women presidents,” she explained. “I’m so proud of Shelby.”

It’s a benchmark, remarkable even.

Yet Arrowood anticipates a time when that isn’t so, when women deans and board chairs are commonplace, unremarkable. “We still have a long way to go.”

She says marginalization is the hardest thing for women to deal with today.

“You can look at where women are in leadership positions. We are a long way away from having parity in those positions, and I encourage you to be active in the ABA, the NCBA or your local bar.”

Arrowood is no stranger to volunteer leadership, whether it’s the NCBA or other organizations she has served in Wake County and beyond. Most recently she has served as chair of the statewide N.C. Symphony Society. She served on the NCBA Board of Governors from 2007-10 and as chair of the Women in the Profession Committee from 2004-06.

Additionally, Arrowood is a past president of the Wake County Bar Association and the 10th Judicial District Bar. She is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, has chaired its International Committee and is immediate past chair of the ACTL State Committee.

She was recognized by the NCBA in 2011 as the recipient of the H. Brent McKnight Renaissance Lawyer Award and is a 2009 alumna of the ABA’s Direct Women program.

Arrowood is a member of the Panel of Neutrals for the American Arbitration Association and the International Centre for Dispute Resolution. She regularly serves as an arbitrator and is also a Certified Superior Court Mediator.

She preaches persistence, “knowing what you want and never giving up.”

“I do believe when you are looking for jobs you need to make a list of everyone you know and reach out to them. The worst that can happen is they will say no. Finding a job is a combination of luck and skill and persistence and, at end of day, I think the most important is persistence.”

Failure? Not in her vernacular.

“I don’t have failures. I don’t allow them. Even if you don’t reach your goal, it’s not a failure. Take away something positive from everything.”

Stick to your principles, know who you can count on and seek forgiveness, not permission. Reach out, she says. The law, and the need for lawyers to help people, extends beyond the confines of cities and urban years.

“We have a glut of lawyers we are failing to deliver legal services to those who need it.”

The ABA Journal addressed the issue with a story in October 2014, using as an example the town of Wishek, N.D. Its only lawyer retired last year, the story says.

Wishek isn’t alone in its struggles for legal help.

“Nearly 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but the New York Times says just 2 percent of small law practices are in those areas. Those still practicing law in small towns are often nearing retirement age, without anyone to take over their practices,” the ABA story says.

 “Somehow the legal services we are delivering are not matching up with clients’ needs,” Arrowood added.

She believes state bar associations like the N.C. Bar can be instrumental in rectifying this issue.  “I firmly believe in the stated mission of the North Carolina Bar Association to promote the administration of justice and the highest standards of integrity and professional competence.”