Women in Law

Making Herstory

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Deanell Reece Tacha
Photo by Nick Vedros

Deanell Reece Tacha never contemplated law school when she started college in 1964 at the University of Kansas. “I had never even met a woman lawyer,” she recalls. “Only 3 percent of U.S. lawyers were women, and only two female federal judges existed in the entire country.”

Tacha, now a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, credits her mother for ingraining her with the attitude that women are capable of doing anything they want.

But others also helped. “Former KU dean of women Emily Taylor was mentoring before we had a word for it,” Tacha says. “She strongly encouraged my decision to attend law school because I wanted something more than what I and other women of my generation at that time had been destined to do.”

Indeed, Tacha, 63, has accomplished the near impossible in comparison to what her mother’s generation in hometown Scandia, Kan., could even contemplate. And she hopes to see changes in the profession that will help more female lawyers prosper and succeed.

“Overall, this time has the promise of offering far greater opportunities and broader perspectives for women as lawyers, clients and leaders to have an impact on the practice of law,” she says.

So what are the ways for trailblazers of the next frontier to make the practice of law more welcoming and promote economic advancement for female lawyers?

“Mentoring and networking are so important,” Tacha says. Her observation is supported by a 2008 ABA-sponsored survey of 4,449 female lawyers. Of the 58 percent of them under 40 who responded that gender matters to them when selecting a supervisor, the majority reported frustration that female supervisors were more demanding of women than men.

“I would hope that those who engaged in the ‘I had to do it, so you have to do it too’ attitude can look back today and see that even though we had to struggle and work so hard for progress, it’s just wrong to impose that on others,” she says. “If there are women still suffering from it, they should see that encouraging and helping our future generations succeed is what’s best for all of us in the profession.”

And for those who feel the need to “go along to get along,” Tacha says, “I hope that there are situations where women won’t tolerate circumstances just because they want to advance. There are behaviors, subtly discriminatory and otherwise, that no one should ever tolerate for the sake of ambition.”


Tacha suggests transforming the conversation about gender issues into focusing on a business model that is good for everyone.

“Living and dying by the billable hour is not working for many lawyers—women and men,” she notes. While work-life balance concerns have historically served as an obstacle to promotions and fed stereotypes about women as lawyers, in 2010 many men (including one of her sons) are also bearing family responsibilities.

“When we advocate breaking out of those models that traditionally disadvantage those who can’t bill thousands of hours,” Tacha suggests, “then everyone should have an equal chance to succeed in our profession.”

Clients can fuel fair advancement, she notes, and can also promote greater job satisfaction. Wal-Mart’s associate general counsel, Joseph West, says that flextime has been added to the criteria the company uses to evaluate outside law firms.

Tacha’s advice to anyone contemplating a judicial career is candid: “Being a federal judge is a wonderful experience. … But I would never advise anyone to plan his or her whole career around becoming a judge. Life happens, and there are so many things beyond your control that can influence where your career path takes you.”

The judge’s personal path began after earning her JD from the University of Michigan. Tacha became a White House fellow in 1971, then joined Hogan & Hartson in 1973 as an associate. Ultimately, she returned to Kansas to engage in private practice until joining the faculty of the University of Kansas School of Law in 1974. By 1981, she became its vice chancellor for academic affairs. President Ronald Reagan appointed her in December 1985 to the 10th Circuit, based in Denver, where she served as chief judge from 2001 to 2008.


Tacha remembers the struggles women of her generation faced trying to make a place for themselves in the law.

“Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s unsuccessful job search, which resulted in only a legal secretary offer after graduating at the top of her Stanford Law School class, happened because of her sex and was customary,” Tacha says. “Today, we have laws that have removed the barriers that Justice O’Connor faced, and it was a hard battle to get those laws passed.”

Her own progress to chief judge proved wrong a few misogynistic naysayers who had crossed her path in the early years. “It took awhile, but when I became a judge I finally had the same salary, my vote counted the same as my male colleagues and I thought to myself, ‘I have achieved equality.’ ”

Tacha cites victories for women such as passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to put women’s sports on a par with men’s athletics, 1993’s Family and Medical Leave Act that gave women the right to maternity leave, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion striking down the male-only admission policy at the Virginia Military Institute. And then there is the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Women no longer have to submit to pregnancy tests before being hired,” she notes, “though if it hadn’t been for a congressman who thought it would be a death knell to the legislation to add the word sex to the 1964 Civil Rights legislation—and who therefore did add the term—the … act could not have been used to strike down such tests that were used to keep women out of certain professions.”

She also notes last year’s appointment of her friend Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Justice Sotomayor will be a very important role model for women in the profession and a very accessible justice,” Tacha says. “We saw how family and her mother are especially important during the confirmation, and she puts them front and center in her life.”

But are all these accomplishments enough? “Your first thought may be that we, as women, have done well,” Tacha says. “But have we as women lawyers truly made it? Have we achieved true equality in the workplace? I’d say no.

“Work-life balance issues continue to dominate, overall job satisfaction surveys show that lawyer burnout runs highest for women, and salary inequality still exists.”

And to those pondering job satisfaction, she says, “If anyone pursues a legal career, especially a judgeship, with the sole motivation of monetary gain, I would never encourage it. It’s the wrong reason to become a lawyer and especially a judge.”

Susan A. Berson is a partner with the Banking & Tax Group of Leawood, Kan., and a regular contributor to the ABA Journal.

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