Full Time Practice

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Women Lawyers at Church

In the middle of my first year at BYU Law School in 1999, one of my classmates got an anonymous note disparaging her choice to attend law school rather than stay home and raise children, as "all good Latter-day Saint women should be doing." As a daughter of a law professor, I had watched countless law students, men and women, come to our home each year, walk the halls of the law school, study in the library, and eventually graduate. Not once had it occurred to me that there was prejudice against women law students and lawyers, and certainly not against those of the LDS faith. I was shocked. What could possibly be the basis for such prejudice?

While I have seen a bit of this prejudice as a woman lawyer in the work place, I have had a completely positive experience as a woman lawyer in the Church: During law school, I was a member of a Young Woman presidency and an advisor to the 12- and 13-year-old girls in my LDS ward. Following law school, I have held teaching and leadership positions in family and student wards, and am currently Relief Society president in a family ward.

In spite of my positive experiences, I have wondered whether the note to my classmate was just a prevailing attitude of 1999, or if it still exists in 2010. If I were to experience this prejudice now, how would I respond? What other difficulties do women lawyers in the Church experience that go beyond bias in attitudes? And most importantly, what can we do to rise above any such negativity?

I don't have answers to all these questions, but I DO know that whether we are practicing our profession or not, we women lawyers, including women lawyers of faith, have received a valuable education and learned skills that make it possible for us to be a significant force for good in our families, our faith, and our society.

I take great comfort in the following words of the late President Gordon B. Hinckley, which I believe represent today's views on all women in the Church, including women lawyers:

"In this day and time, a girl needs an education. She needs the means and skills by which to earn a living should she find herself in a situation where it becomes necessary to do so.

"The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it. I am grateful that women today are afforded the same opportunity to study for science, for the professions, and for every other facet of human knowledge. . . .

". . . Set your priorities in terms of marriage and family, but also pursue educational programs which will lead to satisfying work and productive employment in case you do not marry, or to a sense of security and fulfillment in the event you do marry. Education will increase your appreciation and refine your talent." (Excerpts from "How Can I Become the Woman of Whom I Dream?" General YW Meeting, Ensign, May 2001.) --Susannah Thomas, SLC, UT; WIL Committee; BYU Law '02


  1. Eileen Doyle CraneDecember 7, 2010 at 6:54 AM

    When I was the Prelaw Advisor at BYU (1990-2004), some women students would come to my office, shut the door, and proceed to cry. They were concerned to their core about whether or not they could accomplish all that they dreamed of and were sometimes struggling with the remarks of parents, siblings, friends, and other members of the Church. I worked hard to encourage them, but did not diminish the weight of the load. I would say: "You'll cry if you do this and you'll cry if you don't. Pick your tears."

    Thank goodness for President Hinckley and his love and support of women. I think it is incredibly wonderful, challenging, fabulous, and tiring to be a woman in this environment. I tried to reassure my students about how comforting a witness of the Spirit is when we receive a confirmation that studying law or geology or whatever we choose is acceptable to the Lord. I believe that He helps us every step of the way. The obstacles are not removed, but we do not walk alone. What an amazing time to live and be an LDS woman!

  2. I think I am treated with incredible respect by the rank and file of the Church in my area and non-lawyer leadership. However, I have reason to believe that the established LDS male lawyers in my area much more collegial with the newer male lawyers in my area than they are with me as a relatively "young lawyer" in solo practice. I have never even so much as had a phone call from any of these people but for one who I created the relationship with after many, many contacts. Yet somehow the newer male attorneys are getting contract work and having discussions about their career etc. from these gentlemen. Also, whatever happened to the idea, young male LDS attorneys trying to start practices, of thanking other attorneys who send you referrals which result in work and fees everyone knows you desperately need even if the person who gave you the referral is that nice LDS lady attorney you'd rather not acknowledge exists and is a little further down the road in developing her practice and more experienced than you?

  3. I really appreciate both this article and the comments. I can especially understand the "pick your tears" comment. I feel that I am doing what Heavenly Father wants me to do, but that doesn't mean that it is easy, or that I never worry that I have made the wrong choice. Reading the quote from President Hinckley reminds me of the answers I've received, and encourages me to dare to be different. Thank you!

  4. Thank you for this honest article, Susanah. I was in your 1L class in 1999. I had no idea such a note was passed in our class.

    I really don't think that note was reflective of 1999 values. But my 1L study group was comprised of me and two LDS women. So I may not be an authority on that. Thankfully.

  5. When ever I hear about these small minded memebers of the church who feel it is their job to give others the revelation that they feel they need (instead of letting God and that person work it out). I just remember Elis Reynolds Shipp, she was called by Brigham Young to go to medical school back east (while she had kids at home in Utah) and how part of her mission in the church/life was to save lives. We all have the ability to recieve revelation for what God would have us do, and if we are meant to go to law school than we need to obey... I know that God wanted me to go to law school, I don't know exactly why, but I know I need to become an attorney to fullfil part of my mission in this life... There are tears at times but I know that this degree will bless my life and my family for generations

  6. I am a 1L and had a similar experience shortly after school started. A male student and member of my ward began peppering me questions. He asked me how long I'd been married, what my undergrad was in, and what my husband was studying. His attitude became apparent when he asked me "what [I] was doing there?" I was shocked. Another LDS friend has had similar experiences. The men seem to be a little more accepting now, but they don't take the LDS women very seriously. Their attitude suggests the LDS women do not matter because they will just have babies and stay home. Perhaps it is just the school we are at, but I fell that LDS women still have prejudice to overcome.

  7. A great and prevailing prejudice does, in fact, exist. Of course, not all male members of the church conduct themselves this way. However, it is evident that many of them have mysteriously received revelation in my behalf and have elected to "support" me by shunning me in hopes to drive me back to my home where I belong. Little do they know the tears I cry or the anxiety I face going to school every day, wondering why I'm in law school and what the Lord's greater plan is for our family. All I know for sure is that He knows. He has set me on this path for a wise purpose. I know he will bless those priesthood holders who show kindness and respect towards me and other female law students. I look forward to the day when I will be able to provide meaningful service to my family members, the church, and the community at large.

  8. So disappointed to hear these attitudes and behaviors continue at the law school. Several women in my class (1991) experienced bias, resentment and negative comments from male members of our class. But it was the exception rather than the rule. Most of our male classmates were supportive, friendly and kind. And, thankfully, the faculty did not tolerate the behavior.

    In my litigation practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve had a few experiences of bias and at one time suffered a “hostile work environment”. Generally, it’s the senior partners with big egos who feel entitled to offend others.

    On a brighter note, I recall arguing pre-trial motions in Hawaii where the judge commented with pleasure in having a courtroom full of females. The attorneys (three defense attorneys and I) and the judge were all female. I hadn’t even noticed.

    I’ve often gained reassurance by President Hinckley’s comments about education and preparation. Twenty years ago I would not have imagined that I’d be a single mother of three girls and the sole provider. My education and legal skills afford me the ability to work a flexible schedule. I can pick up my daughters from school, coach volleyball and/or soccer and volunteer in the classroom. I have served as Primary president and as a counselor in both Relief Society and Young Women. I am so thankful that the Lord blessed me with the opportunity to attend law school and practice law. While some women dream about “having it all”; I’ve learned it’s about “giving it your all”.

  9. This is an interesting article. Changing attitudes takes time. I recall when I graduated in NZ I was one of four or five LDS attorneys practising in NZ. At my new ward when I got my first law job the High Priest Group leader commented that the Church discouraged members from studying law because it was deemed such an occupation conflicted with being a good LDS. Well times have moved on and it was pointed out to me last week by a member attorney in my Ward that we now have 8 practising attorneys in our own ward and a flourishing group of LDS attorneys in our city. They include a number of very talented female lawyers inlcuding my wife and daughter in law. The former practices with me and she went to law school after having 5 children right after we were married following our return from our respective missions. That is how you do it the hard way and we do not reccomend it. My daughter in law did it the conventional way completing her degree in law and politics while at the same time meeting our son, getting married and providing us with a beautiful grandson in her last year of school. She chooses to be a mum while her husband pursues his career. My eldest daughter is pursuing a very successful career in management in an international banking organisation in Sydney Australia and yes she is married. It was rare for women in the Church or in my experience in NZ even men to be pursuing some of the amazing opportunities available to young people now. As a son, brother, husband and father in the Church I am all too aware of the pressures historically on our sisters to conform to a dedicated homemaking roll. I am not sure that was ever intended to be so prescritptive but it was clearly a prevalent attitude certainly for my generation. That attitude is changing and as we so often see now women are making choices that combine or not as the case may be the pursuit of their own needs and those of their family. So often their needs are indeed the needs of their family in any event. I am so privileged to be surrounded by incredibly talented and faithful women not only in my family but in the Church. They never cease to amaze me and frankly humble me. The thought that anyone would try to impose any ideology that would restrict them in their pursuit of happiness is so foreign to me and I imagine if not already it will in time not be a view held even by the most uninformed LDS. As president Hinkley so often commented we live in a world now of limitless opportunity and our women are just as entitled to participate in the abundance the world has to offer or not as they so choose. I take my hat off to you all and I want to say a special thank you to Soraya barker who featured in another article recently which I why I visited this site. She is a truly remarkable woman and a local legend as we put it in NZ. She is an example of the wondefrully talented and edicated LDS women I am privileged to be literally surrounded by. To all the women is say Kia Kaha.

  10. Creo que todo parte de la forma en que organicemos nuestras priorodades. Sabemos que tanto varones como mujeres hemos sido bendecidos con las mismas capacidades y talentos, y que es nuestra responsabilidad desarrollarlos en bien nuestro y de las demas personas. asimismo, si como mujeres profesionales colocamos al Señor a la cabeza de nuestras responsabilidades y desafíos, El bendecirá nuestros esfuerzos por desarrollarnos como esposas, madrs y profesionales.

  11. In case you don't speak Spanish and would like to know what Noelia Quiroga had to say, the following is the English translation:

    I think it's all in how we organize our priorities. We know that men and women have been blessed with the same capabilities and talents and it is our responsibility to develop them within ourselves and in others. In this regard, if professional women will rely on The Lord to help us with our responsibilities and challenges, He will bless us as wifes, mothers and professionals.

  12. Hi Susannah! Great article. I remember now getting one or two comments like that when we were 1Ls, but I had largely forgotten about it until I read your article. What I do remember well are fellow students like Josiah--progressive, enlightened, and not threatened in the least by an ambitious female law student. I never thought I'd look back on that year fondly, but I really do now. We had a good class.

    1. Hi Karina -- I haven't been on the blog for a long time, so I'm sorry I'm just seeing your comment now. Thank you so much for your response and the kind words. Despite the craziness of that first year, like you I have a lot of fondness for that year and for our class. I hope you are doing well, and maybe see you at our next reunion? :) Take care!

  13. I attended BYU undergrad and I remember mingling at dinners with guys and girls. The typical questions, what is your major ... the guys would get what do you want to do with that and the girls would get what is your major and that is where it would stop (it was just assumed they would stay home). I got my law degree and MBA (there were only 13 girls in my MBA program) from a different school and never felt like I was expected to achieve less then my male counterparts, once I was no longer at BYU. BYU while wonderful in many ways lets people too easily fall into the group think mentality.