The Women of The University of Alabama School of Law, Class of 1977

Where Are They and How Are They?

By Julia Smeds Roth

The University of Alabama School of Law Class of 1977 is celebrating its 35th year since graduation. The author and 25 other women graduated in that class. How did the women adjust to law school during that time, and how have they fared since graduation? This article will catch you up on these women’s professional and personal lives.

The law class of 1977 at The University of Alabama graduated 147 students, 26 of whom were women. The number of women in that class was the largest number of women in any University of Alabama law class to date. Twenty-four of the women are living; two have died.[1] After concerted attempts to locate them, a questionnaire was sent to the 24 women.[2] Sixteen of the women responded to the questionnaire.

Of those 24, 14 live in Alabama, and 10 live out of state. Those out of state reside in Washington, D.C.; Lithonia, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; New York, New York; Dallas, Texas; and California. The three women living in California reside in Rancho Mirage, Redondo Beach, and San Luis Obispo.

When asked about their experience at the Law School, the women commented on their favorite professors. Professor Jack Payne and Dean M. Leigh Harrison were the women’s favorites. Professor Payne was cited for his Socratic method; Dean Harrison for his “magnificent” legal mind, kind demeanor, and sense of humor.

However, the professor to whom the women most related was Professor Marjorie Knowles who was working on a publication titled “Women and the Law” at the time. She was remembered for her support of women students and for being an excellent role model for the women.

When asked about the effect the women felt as women students at the Law School, most said they did not feel discriminated against in law school, in part because there were women in classes ahead of theirs who were role models. Beth Marietta Lyons in the ‘77 class was Student Bar President, and Alice Wright was President of the Women’s Law Section. As Jean Williams Brown stated, “those of us who chose to go to law school in 1974 were pretty much a strong independent group based on the fact that we all chose to enter a profession that didn’t count many women among its ranks.” Alice Wright said she enjoyed “the shared aspiration to be useful in our lives, whatever form or direction that would take.”

However, some said they felt isolated or not included. Juanita Boddie Sales Lee said she felt more isolated as an African American than as a woman. Others felt it was still a novelty to be accepted to law school and that some men felt that women were taking up a spot.

Of those who responded to the questionnaire, five met their husbands at the law school. Two met their husbands at the same orientation. Beth Todd Campbell and Jean Williams Brown were second year students helping with freshman orientation when they met their future husbands who were attending orientation as freshmen. The women in the Class of ‘77 have at least 25 children, some of whom are already young lawyers. Some of the class are already grandmothers.

Most of the women in the class of 1977 experienced a great camaraderie among their women classmates which Beth Marietta Lyons said “provided me with a great sense of belonging.” They also had fun. Ginger Garrett recalled riding on the Law School’s float in the Homecoming parade, chanting the phrase, “Don’t laugh. Don’t gloat. Future Governors on this float!” One recalled the Battle of the Sexes 50-yard swim. The woman law student won; she failed to tell her male classmate that she had been a competitive swimmer in high school!

When the women graduated their goals varied: most simply wanted to practice law, others wanted to help the downtrodden; another wanted to be an honest lawyer in government.

The career paths taken by the women in the Class of ‘77 are as varied as the women themselves. Some women felt that women were mainly hired in government jobs and very few were being hired in the private law firms. However, some were afforded prestigious clerkships with federal district judges and Alabama Supreme Court judges. Many went to work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and in the public sector such as Legal Services, the federal government, or the Attorney General’s Office. One went to work in the Trust Department at a bank. Kathy Haygood had a lengthy career with the FDIC in Washington, D.C. She was told coming out of law school, in an interview with a private law firm that if she was married and left the firm they would lose their investment. The author was the first woman lawyer hired at Thomas, Taliaferro, now Burr Forman.

Juanita Boddie Sales Lee served as a government attorney, then as a hearing officer, legal counsel to a state university, and now as an attorney for the U.S. Army. Jean Williams Brown worked in the Attorney General’s Office for 20 years, then she was elected to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and ultimately to the Alabama Supreme Court. Jean now serves as Chief Legal Counsel to Secretary of State Beth Chapman. Beth Todd Campbell, now retired, served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for 8 years then as U.S. Magistrate Judge for 13 years. Connie Smith Barker was General Counsel to the Mobile County public school system, then a partner at Capell & Howard in Montgomery, and then she was appointed Commissioner on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C. in 2008 where she will serve until 2016. Beth Marietta Lyons was in private practice in Mobile for 10 years and then ran for the Alabama Legislature where she was elected as a representative for two terms. She now specializes in governmental relations. Ann Rutledge Richardson went into private practice in her hometown of Haleyville, and then was elected District Judge of Winston County where she served for 10 years, and now she has returned to private practice. Melinda Mitchell Waters, now retired, was the first Executive Director of the Alabama State Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program and then Executive Director, Legal Services Corporation of Alabama. Alice Wright was in private practice all her professional life before she retired to California. She practiced in three states in three different type practices. She practiced labor law in Memphis; civil and criminal law in Los Alamos, New Mexico; and then transactional and tax law in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Ginger Garrett has been on the bench in California since 2002 as a Superior Court judge (our circuit court). She has served on family law, juvenile, and criminal assignments. When she responded to the questionnaire she was in the middle of a murder trial. Karen LaMoreaux Bryan was on the ground floor of bringing mediation to the forefront of legal practice in addition to managing her family’s business.

The women of the Class of 1977 have served as an Alabama Supreme Court Justice, a judge on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, a U.S. Magistrate Judge, an Alabama District Court Judge, a Superior Court (jury trial) judge in California, as a member of the Alabama Legislature, and as the Jefferson County, Alabama Conservator.

Of the 16 who responded, 5 remain in private practice. Susan Bevill Livingston is a partner at Balch & Bingham law firm where she has a transactional energy practice. Beth Marietta Lyons has her own law firm in Mobile. The author has a general practice with Eyster, Key, Tubb, Roth, Middleton & Adams in Decatur, Alabama. Alice Hancock is the lawyer for UAW, Legal Services Plan which is a prepaid legal service plan handling personal legal matters of auto workers. Ann Rutledge Richardson practices in Haleyville, Alabama.

Of the 16 who responded, 6 have retired. Of those who retired, Beth Campbell made the decision to retire when her children were teenagers. She felt this was an important time to be home, and she was not happy juggling both roles of mom and judge. Kathy Haygood retired from the FDIC in Washington. One classmate retired but now manages her husband’s law practice.

Many women were able to change their professional jobs over the years. One classmate became a teacher. Another woman commented that the best aspect of her professional career was the ability to set her own hours.

When questioned about what the lawyers liked least in their professional careers many said that the hours were demanding; one said the profession has turned into a business; one hated deadlines; another one hated the lack of civility among lawyers; and another disliked ill-prepared lawyers. Many felt conflict between family and work was always present.

Not surprisingly many of the women who had children did take some time off for their children. Many took a few years off when their children were small; the author took 7 years off when her children were small.

The women in the UA Class of 1977 have found time for community involvement and hobbies. Most of the women have been involved in extensive community service, serving as Board Members on the American Cancer Society, YWCA, Leadership Alabama, Montgomery Symphony Orchestra, United Way, Legal Services Alabama, and Rotary Club to name a few. Many are active in their churches. Juanita Boddie Sales Lee served as National President of the Federal Bar Association as well as her local chapter. Alice Wright was President of the Los Alamos, New Mexico County Bar Association. The author is the incoming President of the University of Alabama Law School Foundation.

The class’ hobbies are broad-ranged. In keeping with the requirements of becoming a lawyer, most women list reading as one of their hobbies. They also enjoy traveling and spending time with family. One classmate is a Master Gardener; also important to the women in the class are UA football, exercise, yoga, hiking, walking, running, historical preservation, genealogy, kayaking, family, fishing, bridge, needlepoint, and managing two farms. Alice Wright was a professional singer for 10 years. Many are helping their aging parents. One classmate responded to the question about hobbies with “my desire is to retire.”

When asked how the past 35 years have changed for women in the legal profession, most answered that the changes have been significant. Some law firms have put in place flex time and part-time options for attorneys which were not offered in 1977. Most responded that they think it is easier for women to be hired by law firms today than it was for the women in the Class of 1977. One commented that the novelty is gone. As Beth Todd Campbell noted “there are more opportunities for women, more role models and more open doors for women.” However, Beth Marietta Lyons still believes “more is expected of female lawyers and we have a special obligation to do exceptional work.” Lastly, Juanita Boddie Sales Lee said “There are more of us and the sky seems to be the limit. I love that women judges are not a rarity and that there are three female Supreme Court Justices. I trust America is better served when all are involved in the processes. Democracy is of, for, and by the people, all people.”

When asked what advice they would give to younger women, the answers varied. Some said the younger women appeared to be just fine and appear to have similar opportunities as their male counterparts. One said that their children will not remember when they are older that a couple of events were missed because of work obligations. Another said it is a wonderful field for women and the conflict between family and work can be worked out. Jean Williams Brown said to always hold onto your integrity and to run for public office if that is where your interest lies. Judge Ginger Garrett said, “Be prepared… Always be cordial to other counsel. There is no place in the practice of law for a lack of civility.” Susan Bevill Livingston said that younger women should find mentors in the workplace and community who can help them succeed and that women should not be hesitant to go after what they want. Another said, “Figure out early how you are going to do it all.” Alice Wright said, “Follow your own heart, your own ambition, your own talents, giving no credence to detractors. At the end, you will be satisfied with your choices made.”

In summary, the women of the UA Class of 1977 have had an incredible variety of legal careers. Many have been able to change jobs during the past 35 years; many have already elected to retire. The difference a law degree made in each of these women’s lives is tremendous. As the author made professional and personal changes in her life, she wondered where she would have been without a law degree. As Jean Williams Brown succinctly stated: “One of the things I have enjoyed most [about this career] is the flexibility [associated with] the practice of law. If you enjoy your profession, even in the age of constant change, a law degree lasts a lifetime and can provide a challenging career for as long as you wish to practice law.”

And, in case you might wonder if there is life after being a dedicated lawyer for a number of years, take a measure from Alice Wright, who after practicing law in Albuquerque, New Mexico for a number of years, retired with her husband to Rancho Mirage, California. When asked how she spends her days, she replied: “Playing piano and singing for my own enjoyment; enjoying wine and fine food; attending chamber music and opera performances; swimming; and domestic and international travel.” Congratulations Alice!

Here is to the UA Class of 1977 Women Lawyers!

[1] Karen Lamoreaux Bryan and Gabrielle Urbanowitz Weil are deceased.
[2] All the women were located through the help of the Law School, Facebook, the internet, and a private investigator.