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Home / Expert Opinion / GRAWA President’s Message: Looking to the past to appreciate our present

GRAWA President’s Message: Looking to the past to appreciate our present

Melanie Wolk

Melanie Wolk

Recently a GRAWA member provided me with an original newspaper article, dated Nov. 24, 1963, indicating that she thought our membership might find it quite interesting and that a certain GRAWA member might appreciate the original for her memoirs.

The front page of Women’s World (a/k/a Section “W”) from the Democrat and Chronicle shows a color photograph of Justice Elizabeth Pine and Margaret Boland as young female attorneys. While reading the article, I realized that, other than Justice Pine, I did not personally know of any of the other women in the article but had heard wonderful stories of each and every one of these female attorneys upon my arrival in Rochester. They included Margaret Boland, Jeannette Snyder, Agnus Bauman, Caroline Branch and Mary Conway.

While the article arguably runs afoul of contemporary standards of political correctness, it does provide insight to the type of legal jobs these women had and how they managed their personal lives and careers — a juggling act that almost every attorney, male or female, faces today.

The article indicates that the Monroe County Bar Association had 984 members, of which only 16 were women. It is hard to imagine that a mere 50 years ago, there were less than 20 female attorneys practicing in Rochester. It would seem unlikely that this handful of pioneering women could have predicted the changes in the number of women practicing law in Rochester and how the practice of law would since come to change.

When Justice Pine attended law school at Harvard, there were only 12 female students, six of whom graduated. That is an astonishing number considering that there were 500 students in her class. On the other end of the spectrum, Margaret Boland was only a high school graduate who passed the bar by self-study. These women clearly had a great deal of “chutzpah” and intelligence to become successful attorneys at a time when it was more of the exception than the rule.

As I compared the statistics contained in this article with the fact that today more women enter and graduate from law school than men, I realize that the changes over the last half century are truly remarkable. I would assume many of us are unaware of how recent women were successfully entering the field of law.

My thoughts next led to the current number of female attorneys practicing in Rochester and how drastically their practice has changed with the transformation and integration of technology into everyday life. I wonder if despite the social norms of 50 years gone by – would the existence such technology at that time afforded more women the ability to be successful attorneys?

As I read this article, which is available on the GRAWA website (www.grawa.org), I considered the changes in how attorneys practice law and with whom they practice since I started a mere 15 years ago. I also contemplated how the evolution of legal practice may further affect women over the next 30 years. All of this among the nostalgic scent of an almost 50-year-old newspaper and memories of a bygone era when attorneys actually read newspapers with newsprint, not with their electronic device of the year.

I suddenly realized how much I missed the smell of ink and the residue that would be left on my hands after reading a newspaper. Yet, at the same moment, I realized that these electronic devices, that so many of us are tethered to day in and day out, allow us the flexibility to attend to our family matters and have unconventional practices that were unfathomable 50 years ago. While we can debate the pros and cons of increased availability and technology in the practice of law, I think we can all agree that it has allowed greater access to the practice of law by a more diverse group of individuals.

As you read this article and hopefully the original article referencing these wonderful women, I ask that you ponder the changes that you have seen in the practice of law over your respective career, regardless of its length. I challenge each of you to think about how diversity and technology in the practice of law has and will influence how you practice.

I have been asked by many people to write a little on the status and challenges of Redmond on our personal lives. So for the next several months, I will provide brief updates. Redmond is doing quite well. Somehow my husband Jeremy and I have made it through the first three months without an emergency trip to the pediatrician or hospital. There are days were I think I have the hang of motherhood and other days that I fall a little short of my expectations. This is a month of transition for us, as I return to work and Redmond heads to meet new friends.

We are now going to be on a schedule that consists of more than getting to the grocery store sometime before the end of the day. I have a feeling that it will be more difficult on me than it will be on him. Regardless, we are looking forward to the new changes and challenges that fall will bring.

Melanie S. Wolk is Special Counsel with the law firm of Goldberg Segalla, LLP is the thirty-first President of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys.