When Linda Bray Chanow arrived at the University of Texas Law School eight years ago to lead UT’s Center for Women in Law, only one alumna was pictured on the stately walls of the school’s first floor, which serves as a sort of UT legal hall of fame.
“Alice Sheffield was in a place where many students didn’t see her,” Chanow remembers. “And she had given the law school $3.5 million. She was the school’s most generous benefactor up until 1985.”
Turns out that donor Sheffield enrolled at UT in 1914, earned her law degree there in 1918 and was the youngest woman certified to practice before the Texas Supreme Court. She began working for the Gulf Oil Corporation in 1925 and spent her long and successful career in its legal department, advancing to the role of associate general counsel.
“Today you see women everywhere on the walls,” Chanow says. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault before. But we weren’t doing a good job of representing all our distinguished alums. It makes a huge impact on the women here now to see where they can go, and to feel that they belong to this great institution.”
Chanow has served as director of UT’s groundbreaking center almost from its beginning. It has won a wide reputation for making the legal field more responsive to women, who now make up a majority of law school students nationally.
“I was hesitant to move my family down to Texas,” Chanow admits. “But during the interviews, I met some incredibly accomplished women here who cared so much about creating opportunities for the next generation of women lawyers. My husband pushed me to meet and interview with the founders. After I met with them, I knew immediately I needed to move to Texas. I called my husband and said, ‘Game on! If we can change the world, we can change it here.’”
One of the major factors was the University of Texas’ reputation as a top law school.
“Our students go everywhere,” Chanow says, “so if I can have an influence with this group, we might have an impact everywhere.”
Again and again, she found that women in the profession needed to ask questions early.
“Students come to my office and ask where to work,” she says “’This firm, or that firm, or government? I want to have kids; where should I work?’ I always refocus them by asking, ‘What kind of law do you want to practice?’ If you find an area of the law that you really love and you are good at, you will be in a position to negotiate for what you need.”
In other words, Chanow says, “Don’t trim your sails too early.”
When Chanow started at the center, she ran it with a half-time assistant. Now her office employs several full-time workers along with six to eight student interns. The center’s internship program provides mentoring and support for other students.
“For instance, one third-year had a really tough first year and was mentored by our third-year interns, so now she makes sure to mentor other first-years coming behind her,” Chanow says. “Everything we do always has a component of giving back to other women. We’ve seen that pay off. We can’t expect of men what we don’t expect of ourselves. We are more and more inclusive every day.”
That means rigorous outreach to women of color as well.
“When I took over the center, I wanted to make sure that the program was accessible to all women and that women of color felt welcome,” Chanow says. “We’ve made a lot of progress in that area. It’s progress, not perfection.”
Becoming another woman
A product of the Pittsburgh area, Chanow, 48, was an accomplished athlete and scholar with a mischievous streak who landed on the idea of a legal career while studying communications and political science at a liberal arts college in West Virginia.
“I was fascinated,” Chanow says. “I loved everything about both law school at American University and Washington D.C. I wanted to do trial and litigation. I was very good at civil procedure.”
Before law school, she married Murray Chanow, a D.C. lobbyist and fundraiser, now an executive with Upbring, formerly known as Lutheran Social Services of the South. They are rearing two teenage boys in Austin.
“There weren’t any lawyers in my family,” she says. “There was a lot of: ‘You want to do what? Why would you leave your banking job?’”
And yet she forged forward.
“My first year in law school, my property professor, Joan Williams, a leading feminist theorist, taught us about women’s property rights, how they have been denied them and still were,” Chanow recalls. “Right away I was hooked. That was a defining moment in my life. My husband says he married one woman and then I became another woman. Joan was a huge influence. There weren’t a whole lot of opportunities for women in my world when I was growing up. It was Joan who showed me why that was true.”
Right out of law school, she was hired by one of the most prominent D.C. law firms, now known as WilmerHale. Unusual for the time, she gave birth to both of her children while still a young lawyer.
“A lot of the successful women who became partners while working part time had their kids early on,” Chanow says. “They learned to juggle it all because they had to during their entire career and felt good about being both a lawyer and a mom. Those who had children after making partner, on the other hand, had a harder time integrating motherhood because they hadn’t had those experiences all along in their careers.”
She became the lead associate on the work-life balance committee at WilmerHale.
“Wilmer had great policies,” Chanow says. “An emergency child care center. Yearlong unpaid leave for caregivers as well as paid maternity leave. It was very progressive for the time.”
By 2006, Chanow wanted to focus full time on gender and the law. Her question: How to retain and advance women?
“The legal profession is ultimately flexible,” Chanow says. “You control your own time. How do you do that while creating value for your organization and finding time to be a good parent? When I was a WilmerHale, I was a part-time lawyer who nobody knew was part-time. You have to meet your clients’ demands. You have to be available to meet them, but there are ways to do it.”
Researching a 2009 study, she discovered that, for women, flexibility was not enough to convince them to stick with the legal profession. They wanted challenges and accomplishments to go with it.
“Women who go to law school are more ambitious,” she found. “They want to have intellectually challenging work, to have their contributions be valued. They want to be good lawyers, to be able to do their craft. Without those things, they are not going to stay around.”
The study and her work with various other projects were noticed. That’s when she received a call from UT.
“My focus when I joined the center was ensuring that women were getting their ambitions met, that they had the resources they needed to hone their craft or become good lawyers,” she says. “That was a wonderful fit with the UT center. The founders loved practicing law, loved being lawyers. They wanted the generation coming behind them to love the law. That’s what really hit me.”
A unique center
A group of powerful UT alumnae founded the center, the only one like it in the country, in 2009. Hannah Brenner was the first director. Brenner put together an inaugural summit but then resigned shortly thereafter.
Chanow came on eight years ago at the urging of Catherine Lamboley, retired senior vice president general counsel for Shell Oil Company, who knew Chanow’s work and wanted a national presence for the center in Austin. She was not the only top lawyer among the founders who drafted Chanow.
Among Chanow’s drives was to assemble a consortium that brought together the heads of women’s organizations across the country, including the more traditional ones.
“Under Linda’s leadership, the Center for Women in Law has become one of the pre-eminent organizations addressing the challenges and the solutions to women lawyers’ advancement,” says Paula Monopoli, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. She also founded that school’s Women, Leadership and Equality Program. “She’s inspired us and created an atmosphere where we feel welcome to come test new approaches to professional development. It’s a remarkable achievement.”
UT provided the center with a basic and ongoing platform, but women lawyers backed it up with dollars. Its $2 million endowment is made up entirely of gifts from women. The center’s annual budget is $1 million, but it alters every other year when the center hosts a national summit. A recent fundraiser featuring television journalist Elizabeth Vargas brought in more than $260,000 net.
“When the founders saw that there (weren’t) a lot of women at the top, they … took personal responsibility for the change they wanted in the profession,” Chanow says. “It takes a person to say, ‘I’m going to do it.’ We inspire them to own the role of making the profession more accessible for women.”