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Community Service and the Other Rich and Varied Components That Constitute Women Lawyers' Lives
An Interview with Judge Marjorie O. Rendell

by Nancy L. Hebble

Fall 1999, Vol. 62, No. 3

Judge Marjorie O. Rendell really wowed the crowd at the final session of this year’s Leadership Program sponsored by the Bar’s Women in the Profession Committee on June 25. Rendell had been invited to give her thoughts on volunteer and community service as a sort of final pep talk for the forty-one members of the Class of 1999 on how to get up, get out there and get noticed.

Of course the judge completed her assignment, but she covered acres of other ground as well. And she did it with such aplomb that attendees were talking about it non-stop for weeks. Of most comfort was the forgiving and upbeat way in which she delivered such practical advice on life and the practice of law. Here was a federal appeals judge telling young women lawyers that it’s OK to ask for help and not suffer in silence, that it’s OK to state your goals flat out to those who manage law firms, and most important to some, it’s OK for women to want to do it all, even if that includes folding the household bath towels and making them look neat.

As an example of her own community service experience, she told the group how she approached membership on the predominantly female board of trustees of the Visiting Nurse Association of Greater Philadelphia, an assignment given to her early in her career by Morris Duane. "What can I give to this organization?" she wondered. What she says she learned was how not to be hard on yourself because you can’t fully understand or start to contribute to an organization within the first three board meetings." The real value comes in service over time," she said.

Judge Rendell’s comments then quickly evolved to talk about the other rich and varied components that constitute women lawyers’ lives. She used the metaphor of the patchwork quilt--the one that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton talks about in her book It Takes a Village. For women, it seems, there’s no giving up anything, there is only adding on. When a woman makes choices and her life takes new turns, then new patterns and colors are added to the quilt, thereby giving the piece a different and broader perspective.

Judge Rendell worked twenty-one years at the law firm of Duane, Morris & Heckscher before being appointed to the United States District Court bench in March 1994 and then to the Third Circuit bench in November 1997. During her career she has served on the boards of many charitable and civic organizations including the Philadelphia Bar Foundation. Presently a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, she also serves as chair of the Board of Overseers of the university’s School of Nursing and as a member of the Council of Penn Women.

Additionally, Judge Rendell is co-chair of the Avenue of the Arts, Inc., Philadelphia’s project to develop a world-class cultural and performing arts district in Center City, and vice chair of the Regional Performing Arts Center. She and her husband, Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, have one son, Jesse, 19.

Excerpts from a recent interview about her comments before the Leadership Group follow:

Q: When you talked to the Leadership Group about volunteer work, you said that lawyers really short-change themselves if they keep their heads down at their desks all day.

A: Well, you have to bill a certain number of hours and there are bottom lines you have to meet. But, in a given day you may spend a couple of hours at a board meeting of a nonprofit, for example. You’re sitting there thinking, "What am I doing here? I should be contributing," or "I should be back at the office." And yet, from the perspective of ten years later on that board, what you’ve gained from being there is enormous as compared to what you would have gained by putting in those extra two hours of work.

This is something that I think we don’t appreciate. Being exposed to other people and having other people exposed to you enhances who you are. Yet at age 30 you don’t realize this. You don’t realize that when you’re sitting around the table at a board of directors meeting that these people are going to be lifelong friends. They will get to know you, and they will speak highly of you. They may refer business to you, but that shouldn’t be your aim.

You’re building who you are by all your experiences. And the more varied and diverse they are, especially in terms of your ability to contribute while on these boards, the better for you personally. It’s obviously better for your community. At the time, we’re not thinking, "When I am 45 I will have changed this organization, I will have contributed to that, I will have made these friends, et cetera." But I think that’s the perspective we need to have.

Q: When did you gain this perspective?

A: It took me years to figure out what it really means to serve on a board. The fact is that by sitting there at a meeting once a month, reading materials, asking questions--in the end, you do contribute. Over time you learn that organizations can have long-range problems, not the kind you have to deal with instantly for clients. I think it’s good to be part of something like that, and to stick with it. Your contribution can be made after you’ve taken the time to listen, to educate yourself and become involved. Only then can you come up with the right questions and some good ideas that hopefully will be beneficial to the organization in the long run.

Q: When you talked about your volunteer work at Penn, you called your fellow board members "wonderful people." You said you were thinking you’re not in their league. What did you mean by that?

A: Well, many of them are captains of industry. They have traveled a very difficult road to get where they are. And they’re still traveling that road--day in and day out. I’ve also traveled a difficult road, but, you know, you look at someone else and you always assume that their road was more difficult than yours. Right now I love where I am, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But it certainly is not an easy job. And since I love it so much, I have to assume whatever work anybody else is doing is more difficult than mine.

Q: More than one person said they were surprised to hear you say that even as a judge you have the same problems as other professional women who are wives and mothers and that you deal with these problems as best you can.

A: Remember, my son is now 19 so some of this perspective is because I’m looking back and not staring it in the face. But we all talk about the many things we have to do and how to fit it all in. I think women truly enjoy doing all these things. Our problem is not that we have each of them to do, it’s that we don’t want to make choices and leave anything out. We like to be there for our kids at the school play. We like to be able to be responsive to a client. We like to be able to go to the grocery and actually pick out the food our family will eat. We like to fold the towels and have them look nice. Actually, some days that may be the only thing we have fully accomplished.

Q: Do you think that’s very different from men?

A: I don’t like to make gross generalizations, but, traditionally, the average male’s sphere of what it is that he will do or should do in a given day is not as broad as women’s. It just doesn’t occur to most males that, "Oh, there’s nothing in the refrigerator," or "The hamper is overflowing." Although it is changing. More and more it is becoming, "John has a lacrosse game," or "Susie has a ballet recital." But twenty years ago, even that wasn’t on the radar screen of most men.

Q: You say their sphere is not as broad?

A: Generally, but I also know families and couples where that’s not the case. Sometimes it’s the woman’s sphere that’s not as broad because, for example, she travels a lot in her job. Then it’s the husband, in fact, who gets up and says, "Okay, this laundry’s got to get done." But that’s not traditional. I just think that women actually like and get more satisfaction from those types of chores than men do. And if they don’t, then presumably they’ve done something about getting somebody else to do that work.

Q: In your talk, when you were speaking about being successful, you said it’s a little bit easier when you have a powerful spouse.

A: Well, it’s easier if you have relatives around to help, which I didn’t have. But, apart from that, I found you should either have a spouse who can stay home without a problem, or somebody who’s very powerful and can call off the meeting that conflicts with what you have to do. At the firm, I might have had to go to a hearing in Chicago and take an early flight, for example. Well, there was our young son Jesse. Somebody had to wait for the sitter to come, and my husband had an eight o’clock meeting. Well, Eddie was the District Attorney. He could postpone, or even be late for, that meeting. That’s all there was to it. So I think a spouse in control is very nice to have.

Q: And for those that don’t, is a stay-at-home spouse a strong option?

A: Sure. I mean, it’s a little bit of a role reversal that the woman has the more challenging job with more pay coming in. But, in fact, I know someone who just relocated with her family because she was offered a fabulous job and didn’t want to pass it up. Her husband can probably find the same type of job he’s had here and also look after the kids. Meanwhile, she’s going to be zooming around traveling. I think you’re finding that more and more. It’s just the reverse of what used to be, obviously.

Q: One of the strongest statements you made was that if there’s no support for you and what you do in your work situation, then you should get out. Could you expand on that?

A: In golf, one of the things they tell you from a motivational standpoint is you have to be your own best buddy. If you fall down on a shot, you’ve got to say to yourself, "Hey, no problem. I can do this." And it’s the same thing when you’re doing this drill of trying to be a leader, trying to be a professional, and even trying to have fun. You have to constantly support yourself, but you have to be surrounded with people who want you to succeed and are supportive.

I can remember saying to my husband, more than once, when I felt stressed and would end the day in tears, "I can’t do this. I can’t hack it. I can’t take all the pressures every which way." He would say, "Yes, you can, and I’ll help you. I’ll do the food shopping, I’ll do this, whatever you want, I don’t care. Come on, you’ll be fine." Now if he had said to me, "Why don’t you just throw in the towel?" Or, if he complained that dinner wasn’t on the table or something like that, it probably would have weakened me and undermined my ability to succeed. But he always made me believe I could do it; he was my rock, my support group and number one fan. And that is tremendously important.

When I was at Duane Morris, one of the men I worked closely with, Dave Sykes, made it his business for me to succeed in the firm and with clients. He put me out there, he gave me terrific opportunities, and he was my biggest booster. Everyone needs that. So I say, if you’re not surrounded by people who want you to succeed, then move on.

Q: What about women who want to become leaders in their organizations? Is there anything they should say or do differently?

A: Too often, women go it alone and suffer in silence. We don’t speak up to our co-workers. We may actually be working with some men, or some other women, who are making assumptions as to our dedication and devotion to the job--people who are thinking that we are just not the kind of person who really wants to move ahead. Believe it or not, they can have this idea about you. I think we have to sit down with the people we work with and say, "Listen, I just want you to know that I would love to head a committee. If you have an idea or I have an idea, can I form a committee and do it?" or, "I would like to play a leadership role. I would like to become the head of this department one day," or, "I’d love to work with you. I’d like to have lunch with you sometime and get your advice." In other words, you tell the people you’re working with that your own success is important to you, number one. And number two, isn’t that something the supervisor should want as well?

Q: You’re saying that often women don’t realize people have made assumptions about them and therefore assumptions in time become fact?

A: Yes. Picture the six-year male associate in his dark suit and striped tie. Somebody looks at him and says, "Ah, you know, leadership of this firm or this department is probably his goal in life." Similarly, they may look at a six-year female associate who has three youngsters at home, and they may assume, "Ah, probably the last thing she wants is to be here at eight o’clock at night."

Now, if the man said to the firm, "You know, I’m really enjoying this, but I don’t want to be on any committees. My wife’s very busy and I want to be home at six o’clock," you might be taken aback. Similarly, if the woman said, "Listen, I really want to be a leader. And those pressures of my children, that’s not a problem. My husband is at home. I work, and I want to be a leader. I want to head up something." In both instances, I think, jaws might drop. But women may have to say those things, in some fashion. Their aspirations may have to be verbalized in order to dispel the traditional notions.

Q: Child-rearing and a career in the law . . . ultimately how does that mix come out with the perspective of time?

A: Well, again, it’s easier for me to look back upon now that my son is grown. But I do a lot of mentoring with young women. I see their eyes glaze over when I tell them, "You know, the fact that you’ve got a 3.6 and not a 3.7 is not really important in the scheme of things." And, "You didn’t get into X law school, you got into Y law school. You’ll be fine."

But they can’t comprehend. And it’s the same thing when you’re up for partnership and you have a baby and you’re deciding whether to stay home for a month or to stay home for two years. You look at the prospect of staying home two years as just a killer, something you absolutely can’t do. But when you get to be 45 or 50, you look back and you realize that nobody ever asked you over lunch, "Now, how quickly did you make partner? Was it in seven years? Or did it take you ten years?"

Q: When did you have your child?

A: Right when I was on the partnership track. We had been married eight or nine years and I’d been at the firm six or seven. I was right on the cusp there. I did very much think that if I took time off it would impact greatly how I was perceived, and it would impact how all women are perceived. It would be a setback, I figured.

Q: So what happened?

A: So I went back to work after about four weeks.

Q: Did you then become a partner in record time? Or did it take an extra year?

A: Normal time. Normal time.

Q: But today, when firms put off offering partnerships longer . . .

A: Well, people might even think, "Gee, they’ll use this as an extra excuse to put me off longer." To which I now say, "So? Who cares? You’ll make it." Again, it’s easy for me to say, but for the woman who’s in that bind today, it’s just much more urgent.

Q: How do you know when you’ve found the right place--a place where you’re valued, a place where everything works well?

A: I’m not able to answer that because I worked at Duane Morris the summer of my second year, and I worked there my third year, and I never went anywhere else. It just felt right. It was right, for me, and I never had a time when I thought it wasn’t. I was surrounded by people who cared about what I thought were the right things and didn’t take themselves too seriously. That was important to me. I think very often that if you can organize what’s right and what’s wrong with where you are--you know, draw a line down the middle of the page and try to actually analyze it—you’ll realize that all things considered, you’re in a pretty good place. You’ll say to yourself, "What’s wrong with it are things that either I can change or that I can’t change, but they aren’t going to be things that make or break my future."

Q: Would you dub the Duane Morris firm as a woman-friendly or a family-friendly place to work back when you started?

A: Well, I think Jane Leslie Dalton set the tone. You know, when I interviewed at the firm she was pregnant with her second child and she was a second-year associate. Here she was working as a lawyer, having children and coping. And we’re talking the Dark Ages, really, the early ‘70s. The fact that the partners had said to themselves, "We don’t really care that this woman’s pregnant and has kids. She’s going to be a good lawyer." Well, I figured it was a good place. And yes, I think the firm developed a really fine reputation in terms of being friendly to women with families, and for men with families, too.

Q: How long were you at the firm?

A: Twenty plus years, but back then you just didn’t move. It was a blot on your record. If you went around to different firms, there had to be a problem. Now there’s a problem if you stay, it seems. I don’t necessarily think so, but the young lawyers today seem to go from place to place. They believe they’re adding value to their resumes.

Q: Why do you think older women lawyers are leaving the profession? Bar statistics show that women lawyers, after age 50, are not as active in the Association in such large numbers as younger women lawyers.

A: My experience would be just speculation, but, having said that, I think it’s that more mature women have many choices. They have a lot of things on their plate that tug at them. It could be that they’ve got family responsibilities that are very strong--whether it’s an aging parent, a teenage child, a child in college, or even children who are finished with school.

Whether it’s when the pressure is most intense, or when it’s totally off, women often end up making choices in both their personal and professional lives. And, face it, being in a legal career is not easy; by its very nature, it’s demanding. There were times when I would feel that I was pulled in every direction. I was like an octopus, with someone yanking at the end of each tentacle.

Also, sometimes responsibility and what’s expected of you as you mature and grow at a law firm is even greater than what you’ve already experienced. It involves more nighttime activities, marketing or travel. I think some women just say, "Listen, I’ve done my part. I’m satisfied with who I am. I’ve shown I can succeed." Also, maybe in terms of the family income, there aren’t as many demands. They’re at a place where they can say, "I’m going to chill out," or "I’m going to do something different," or "I’m going to take care of myself for a change." That’s the way I think women sometimes feel after they’ve been busy doing all these things for decades. At some point they say, "I’ve got to do something for me. I’ve got to take time for me. I want to feel free to do other things."

Q: That’s a very common-sense spin on what’s happening, much more positive than those vague, dark expressions of dissatisfaction with the practice and the profession that we sometimes read about.

A: It’s a very difficult profession because people need you all the time. You’re constantly being needed. And after a while, it’s nice not to be needed. I find that in my job, but I also think that the metaphor of a patchwork quilt is exactly right with many women. There’s a statement in Hillary Clinton’s book that it’s not a matter of juggling, because that means something gets dropped. It’s not even a matter of balance, because that makes it seem like you’re on a precipice or you’re out of balance. It’s that life is a patchwork quilt, and we keep adding to it. And as we do, we decide what we like and what else we want to add.

I think women want to keep adding different patches. They don’t want half the quilt to be blue because they’ve been at a law firm for twenty years working like crazy. They’ll say, "I need to add a little orange, maybe some yellow. I need to keep adding in a different way. Maybe adding some white to signify that I’m going to take care of me and some purple to signify that I’m going to go to a play now and then . . . or visit my sister and her children, who I haven’t seen in some time."

And I think there also comes a time of realization, of taking stock. It’s a time of saying I’m happy with who I am now, but I’ve got twenty healthy years ahead of me. In twenty years, my quilt will be different.

Q: Are you looking at your own quilt now?

A: Yes, because it gives perspective. We look back on what we’ve done and exactly where we are now. We make choices as to what to add and what to back away from. Again this is totally anecdotal, but I don’t know that men do it in quite the same way. They might take stock more in their jobs and say, "Okay, where do I want to be in ten or twenty years in my organization?" as compared to their entire life.

Q: So you’re adding on pieces to the quilt, but you can’t pull pieces out. They’re already sewn.

A: Yes, that’s right, you can’t. That’s why you have to make it bigger or add another color in order to change the overall tone.

Q: Do you have anything else you would like to say to our readers that you didn’t say to the Leadership Group?

A: Yes. I had a situation once where I needed some advice on child-rearing. Who could I turn to? What do I do about this? I called Jane Dalton. She and I were friends, but we were not best buddies or confidantes. I called her because having four children, she was the resident expert. I thought she would identify with my problem, and she did. I can look back now and see that the situation was remedied thanks to her caring words of advice.

It’s so important for women not to go it alone when they have problems and to call on senior women who’ve been there. I am convinced that women love to share this kind of information and help. They feel that this is extremely valuable, just like this interview with The Philadelphia Lawyer. You know, another time I might have said no because it doesn’t have to do with the law, but I think I have learned some things that can help others because I’ve been at this longer.

[Judge] Anita Brody and I talk often about our children and the fact that if one of them isn’t happy it’s not a good day. I’ve asked her for advice and she has asked me for advice. We know we can pick up the telephone and get an honest take that is right on target. What a comfort that is! And I would hope it would be a comfort to women coming up to know that you don’t have to look at other women from afar. We’d be glad to lend a word or two of advice on some of these issues where it’s appropriate.

Q:: You’re going to get a lot of phone calls.

A: Letters or e-mail, please!