No longer a minority, Wake Forest Law’s long history of strong women leaders influence current students

Photo of Faculty Emeritus Rhoda Billings ('66)

Professor Emeritus Rhoda Billings (JD '66)

In 1966, Rhoda Billings graduated first in her class from Wake Forest University School of Law. She was the only woman.

The year Billings enrolled in law school — 1963 — was also the year the American Bar Association (ABA) first began recording data on gender and law school enrollment. Fifty years after Billing’s graduation, women make up the majority of students enrolled at ABA-accredited law schools.

But Billings (JD ’66) is just one remarkable woman in a long line of strong women leaders at Wake Forest Law.

When Dean Suzanne Reynolds (JD ’77) enrolled as a student at Wake Forest Law, Billings was a member of the faculty. Dean Reynolds is an expert in family law and has received countless accolades for her commitment to teaching and public service both nationally and locally. After practicing for a few years, Dean Reynolds joined the faculty in 1981, was named Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in 2010, interim dean in 2014 and finally dean of the law school in 2015. She is the first woman to lead the Wake Forest School of Law, and joins a minority of ABA accredited law schools, only 31 percent, that are currently led by women.

These women, and countless others, have inspired past and current students to pursue their passions and not be afraid to lead.

In the past two years, women students have stepped up to the challenge, taking on significant responsibility and leadership roles in most of the active student organizations. Kayleigh Butterfield (JD ’17) serves as Wake Forest Law Review editor in chief, a position held by a woman at only 38 percent of Top 50 Law Schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Sarah Saint (JD ’17) is director of Wake Forest Law’s Pro Bono Project and co-chair of OUTLaw, Stephanie Jackson (JD ’17) is director of the Public Law Interest Organization, Kyleigh Feehs (JD ’17) is chair of the Honor Council and Grace Sykes (JD ’17) is president of the Student Bar Association.

Numerous other women lead student organizations at Wake Forest Law, and most will attest that the female faculty and staff serve as inspiration. Kendra Stark (JD ’17) is leader of the Federalist Society and the Domestic Violence Awareness Coalition (DVAC). Stark stated these women “paved a path that provided us not only the opportunity, but the courage to achieve.” For Stark, these women and others along with her female peers provide a source of encouragement and strength. “Being surrounded by confident, fearless, high-achieving women, both standing at the front of the classroom and sitting in the desk beside me, has forced me to demand more of myself both personally and academically.”

The legal profession has historically been and is presently dominated by men. For example, total representation of women in both federal and state judgeships is only 27.1 percent. Additionally, as of 2015, women lawyers were still on average paid less than their male counterparts, earning roughly only 90 percent of a male attorney’s weekly salary.

These disparities are not unnoticed and resistance to women in the profession has been experienced personally by some Wake Forest Law students as they begin their legal careers. Janice Johnson (JD ’17), leader of the Immigration Law Society and the Pro Bono Project’s Coordinator of Student Organizations and Projects, stated that one challenge she has faced as a young woman professional is establishing legitimacy and credibility.  “I was working with a client, a non-profit, and in the final meeting, the Chairman of the Board felt the need to validate or second everything I said to the rest of the board. It was as if he was reassuring the board that I was correct. I wonder if he would have done it if I were male?”

Johnson is not alone in her frustration. Katie Barkley (JD ’17), who serves on the PILO Board of Directors, stated, “being a woman in the law is very hard because sometimes the courtroom is treated like a television show – it matters what you wear, what your make-up looks like, how your voice sounds.” According to Barkley, these superficial characteristics make it difficult to represent a client. “You want to represent your client the best way you can, so you must appease the judges, seasoned attorneys, and potentially a jury. It is so hard for women: how should we react if a judge comments on our pantsuit?”

These obstacles force women to strike an almost impossible balance, learning to command respect without causing offense. As Johnson stated, “I feel like I have to walk a very fine line between being assertive but not (too) assertive. If I am too assertive in my opinion, I am not going to be seen as a strong or a ‘zealous advocate,’ but rather a bitch.’ ” Barkley echoed those sentiments in reference to unwarranted comments about the pantsuit, “we certainly can’t tell the judge to shove off, but it’s hard to take it too.”

However, this adversity equips women to thrive and succeed in the legal profession. As Jackson adds, “perhaps it’s the previous exclusion of women in this field that make us uniquely aware of the importance of legal advocacy and how the law can be used as a tool for progress.” Jackson recognizes that being surrounded by strong women leaders is “heartening.” For her, Wake Forest Law is filled with “professors, administrators and staff – who lead by example, utilize an open door policy for support and empower all students to step up, to lean in and to contribute.”

At Wake Forest Law, women like Professor Emeritus Billings and Dean Reynolds are inspiring a new generation of women leaders. Johnson observes, “Seeing these women in roles that are traditionally reserved for men and still somewhat dominated by them shows that is possible to be a successful (member) of this profession.”

The strength, tenacity and unabashed confidence of these women leaders coupled with their shared desire to see one another succeed makes Wake Forest Law an excellent place to be an aspiring woman attorney. For these future attorneys, judges, businesswomen and public servants, there is no doubt in their ability to lead.

As Jackson stated, “If you have the vision and the motivation to try and make a difference in the law school community and beyond, the implied question at Wake Forest Law is not ‘why lead?’ but ‘why not?’ ”