As a young associate at Barnes & Thornburg, Nicholas Kile was always excited when the older attorneys asked him to join their group for lunch.
He enjoyed sitting in the former Ayres Tea Room and listening to those “cornerstones of the law firm” tell stories and solve the world’s problems. Included in the group was Shirley Shideler, the first woman Barnes & Thornburg hired as an associate and named as a partner.
Shideler, who died in 2003, is remembered by friends and colleagues as being a very generous person and skilled attorney who worked tirelessly for her clients. Above all, she is credited with helping open the door for other women to join the legal profession.
From her reputation at the firm and her tales at lunch, Kile gained a great deal of respect for Shideler. He came to have high regard toward Shideler for being the lone woman in an office dominated by men.
He could see that trailblazing spirit even at lunch. Recalling the composition of the group, Kile said, “It was all men and Shirley.”
Recently, Barnes & Thornburg and the Indiana Bar Foundation honored Shideler. Kile came up with the idea of having a special reception at the firm’s Indianapolis office to pay homage to Shideler’s legacy and to recognize three women who are blazing trails of their own in the legal field.
The co-honorees were Sarah Evans Barker, first female judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Loretta Rush, first female chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court and Carol Stephan, first female chair of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
At the reception, held Sept. 17, Barnes & Thornburg gave a nod to its seven new associates who had joined the firm that day. Five of the new hires were women.
Today, when a group of attorneys gather for lunch, odds are there is more than one woman at the table. According to the American Bar Association, 34 percent of all lawyers in 2013 were women. In private practice, females constituted 45 percent of the associates and 20 percent of the partners. Law school classes are almost evenly split with women comprising 47 percent of the graduating class in 2011.
Leslie Henderzahs became the first woman partner at Church Church Hittle & Antrim in 1995. Today, about 40 percent of the Hamilton County law firm’s attorneys are women. The firm has not intentionally been trying to hire women, Henderzahs said, rather, many of the best qualified candidates have been female.
She does not recall meeting resistance when she went to law school and joined the bar in 1990. At that time, Henderzahs had “wonderful, kind” professors and mentors helping her. She also had plenty of examples to follow.
Attorney Janet Vargo was her first mentor. Vargo enrolled in Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law after her daughter was settled in elementary school. She had heard stories from other women but did not personally encounter any prejudice from judges or opposing counsel.
“I was lucky,” Vargo said.
Henderzahs learned the importance of preparation from her mentor. Also, during her time clerking for the late Magistrate Judge J. Patrick Endsley in the Southern District, she watched how Judge Sarah Evans Barker balanced work and family.
“I didn’t appreciate it at the time how much I was learning, but looking back, I learned a lot just watching how she handled things,” Henderzahs said.
The trail, however, has not always been easy.
Lake Superior Judge Sheila Moss said the glass ceiling was intact when she graduated from Valparaiso Law School in 1981. Looking at a photograph of her classmates, Moss pointed out she was one of eight African-American women who received law degrees.
The school was very welcoming to minorities and women, but not many doors were open in the legal profession at that time. Like many women, Moss joined the public sector. She first served as a public defender in the Gary City Court then moved to the prosecutor’s office. In 1993, Moss was selected to replace retiring Judge Paul Stanko in the Superior Court.
Women in the profession in the 1980s mimicked men, Moss remembered. They copied their male counterparts in dress and attitude. Now she sees more female attorneys being themselves and carving their own paths.
“We’re different from men,” Moss said. “I don’t think that needs to be ignored or downplayed. I think it has made the law more sensitive to the population, made sure the law is applied equitably.”
Looking around Evansville, Wooden & McLaughlin partner Michele Bryant does not see as many women on the bench and in firm management positions as she would have expected when she started practicing law in 1989.
Bryant said she felt encouraged to pursue a career in the law and, despite being mistaken for the court reporter at depositions because she was a woman, did not feel discriminated against or excluded in the profession.
Indeed, when she became the first female partner at her former firm, Bamberger Foreman Osward & Hahn LLP in 1995, she did not see shards of glass falling around her.
“It didn’t seem like a big deal to me at that time,” Bryant said. “I was one of the other attorneys there. It didn’t seem to be an outstanding achievement.”
While the number of women in the profession has increased, Bryant is unsure why more have not filled leadership positions. Maybe women are not being encouraged to seek judgeships or managing partner opportunities or they do not want to take on more responsibility that would take away time from their families. She also speculated that possibly some clients are not as accepting. Women attorneys may have a more difficult time getting into management because rainmaking for them can be more difficult.
Bryant hopes the situation changes in the next 10 years.
“I don’t know if more women will be managing partners. I would like to say ‘yes’ because I think there is an element of some integrity women bring to the table,” Bryant said. “But I don’t know if the interest will be there for women.”
Kristin Fruehwald was the third female attorney hired at Barnes & Thornburg, joining the firm as an associate in 1975. She worked closely with Shideler in estate planning and probate law.
Speaking of her friend and former colleague before the evening reception, Fruehwald paused and tried not to cry.
“She was really one of the kindest people,” Fruehwald said. “She was also pretty smart and talented. She expected you to give your all to your client.”
Shideler began working at Barnes & Thornburg as a legal secretary and then went to Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law at night, earning her J.D. in 1964. Upon graduating, she anticipated that she would join a bank as a trust officer but, to her surprise, she was offered an associate position at the firm.
She paid close attention to her work and treated her clients as kings. Shideler knew that as the first woman, she needed to do well so the firm would be more receptive to hiring other females, Fruehwald said.
Within the profession, she made her mark. Shideler was the first president of the Indiana Bar Foundation and was the first woman elected to the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel.
Outside of the office, Shideler loved to dance and spend time with a fun, loving group of girlfriends. She was also a single mother which made her well aware of the demands of family. To remind herself that her young associates had similar demands, she kept photos of their children pasted to her file cabinet.
Shideler had a remarkable memory for names, faces and life stories. Networking at bar association events, Fruehwald recalled, Shideler would introduce her to everyone.
And, one time, many years ago, she gave Fruehwald a piece of advice that hinted at how hard it was to be the lone woman. Shideler told her young colleague she should never be the first to sit at a table, because she might end up sitting alone.•