Leading the Way, Leaving a Legacy

While thinking about Women’s History Month, it occurred to me that RCBA women presidents, officers, board members, and members have offered great examples of service to the profession and community. It may not be surprising that because women have been underrepresented historically in the legal profession (8% of all lawyers in 1980 and 37% of all lawyers todayi), women have also been  underrepresented in leadership positions of the RCBA. The first woman president of the RCBA, Hon. Paulette Flynn, took office in 1989, decades after the founding of this organization in 1884. 

After Judge Flynn broke the glass ceiling, the RCBA has done a better job of having inclusive (at least women) leadership. In the 31 years since Judge Flynn served as RCBA President, 13 (14 if we include incoming President Monica Dooner-Lindgren) other women have followed in her footsteps. As only the 13th RCBA woman President, I reflected on how fortunate I have been to know many of these past women RCBA presidents through bar events and volunteer opportunities. 

RCBA Women Presidents

1. Hon. Paulette Flynn - 1989-90
2. Barbara F. L. Penn - 1996-97
3. Joan Bettenburg - 1997-98
4. Phyllis Karasov - 1999-2000
5. Hon. Mary Ellen McGinnis - 2000-01
6. Mary Ward - 2005-06 (dec. 2018)
7. Elizabeth Keyes - 2006-07
8. Hon. Shawn Bartsh - 2011-12
9. Angela Brandt - 2013-14
10. Hon. Kelly Olmstead - 2015-16
11. Caryn Boisen - 2018-19
12. Sarah McEllistrem - 2019-20
13. Susan Buckley - 2020-21
14. Monica Dooner-Lindgren - 2021-22

These women presidents have inspired me. When I became Vice President, I considered planning an RCBA women presidents reunion.ii While we would have loved to have had an in-person meeting, COVID forced us to meet virtually. 

RCBA Women Presidents MeetingOn March 10, CEO Cheryl Dalby and most of the presidents listed “met” on Zoom. After introductions, Cheryl described changes at the RCBA, particularly the combined administrative functions for the MSBA, HCBA, and RCBA. She discussed the late Mary Ward’s contributions to the profession and to RCBA, as well as how much we miss her. For those of you who did not have a chance to know President Ward, she served the RCBA Executive Committee as secretary, treasurer, president, was on the Second District Ethics Committee, Diversity Committee, Bench and Bar Benefit, Memorials Committee, and also served in MSBA Sections and Assembly. In 2013, she was honored with the RCBA Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award for her contributions to the bar and to the community.iii

We broke into small groups to discuss the most memorable part of each woman’s presidency and offered advice to incoming RCBA officers. Surprisingly, there was an interesting parallel regarding the memorable events: Phyllis Karasov and Hon. Mary Ellen McGinnis mentioned how much they enjoyed hiring Cheryl as RCBA Executive Director in 2000, and after nineteen years, Caryn Boisen and Sarah McEllistrem recalled that interviewing and promoting Cheryl to MSBA/RCBA/HCBA CEO was one of their most memorable moments as well. Barbara Penn noted that Cheryl has made great improvements in the Bar’s operations, and everyone agreed how much confidence we have in her leadership today.iv 

The past presidents also offered advice to future leaders: both Jody Bettenburg and Sarah McEllistrem observed that challenges are met and goals are accomplished when there is a spirit of compromise and cooperation and leaders approach their tasks with a spirit of humility. Betsy Keyes, who continues to donate her time to the RCBA Golf Tournament and co-chairs the RCBA Memorials Committee, advised leaders to reevaluate and improve each event, even those iconic events like the Bench and Bar Benefit and Judge’s Dinner, to keep them fresh and appealing. COVID forced this 
approach in 2020. 

Finally, Judge Bartsh encouraged us to make an effort to reach out to new people—to address diversity and to be inclusive—by making cold-calls to connect with those not currently involved and inviting prospective members for coffee or to RCBA events. She 
suggested that we break out of our comfort zones to welcome these less represented groups in the RCBA. After all, it took decades before the first woman president was elected to lead the RCBA. We need to ensure that historically underrepresented groups will not have to wait a similar amount of time before they assume the helm of the RCBA. 

I am grateful for the leadership of those who preceded me and know that the future is in good hands with incoming President Monica Dooner-Lindgren!

iABA, www.2civility.org/aba-profile-of-the-legal-profession-diversity-and-well-being/, August 13, 2020, www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/news/2019/08/ProfileOfProfession-total-hi.pdf
iiMany thanks to Cheryl Dalby, MSBA/HCBA/RCBA CEO and Ariana Guerra, Assistant to MSBA CEO, for coordinating this meeting for RCBA past women presidents.
iiiKeyes, Elizabeth, RCBA Memorials, pg. 35, April 12, 2019.
ivWe agreed unanimously that when confronted with challenging issues, we liked to think "What would Cheryl do?"