In the shadow of the first woman attorney to become a partner at a large Indiana law firm, five female general counsel of publicly traded companies were honored Thursday for their achievements not only in the legal field but also for developing other women and minorities into leaders.
The women were recognized by Barnes & Thornburg LLP at its 3rd Annual Shirley’s Legacy ceremony. Started in 2015, the law firm has annually remembered its late colleague, Shirley Shideler, by honoring female attorneys who reflect her trailblazing spirit.
Shideler first joined Barnes as a legal secretary then became the first female associate at the firm in 1963 after completing her law degree in night school. She made partner in 1971, and in 1998 became the first woman to be president of the Indiana Bar Foundation.
Although she died in 2003, she was very much a part of the evening reception. Several recalled memories of Shideler and marveled at how graciously she was able to accomplish so much for women.
“I am very blessed to be able to walk in the shoes and stand on the shoulders of someone like Shirley,” said Sharon Barner, vice president and general counsel of Cummins Inc. “I feel very fortunate that I am able to do work that I am passionate about.”
Along with Barner, the other 2017 Shirley’s Legacy honorees were Carrie Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer of NiSource Inc.; Cynthia Kretz, vice president and general counsel of Cook Group Inc.; Erin Roth, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Wabash National Corp., and Judi Sobecki, U.S. general counsel of The AES Corp.
Each were introduced to the audience by a female attorney at Barnes and presented with an award encased in glass. The women were praised for being exemplary attorneys and leaders in the companies as well as their communities. In addition, they were applauded for cultivating and mentoring the next generation of leaders, especially among women and minorities.
“We all have an obligation to help others and bring them up, whether it’s people that look like us or don’t look like us, whether people came from the same background as we did or from some other background,” Hightman said. “The more we can do that, the more that we can incorporate them in everything that we do in our jobs and in our lives, the better we’ll be in all respects.”
As the Barnes’ attorneys pointed out, being a general counsel takes hard work and is a position that has to be earned every day. The five honorees were described as excelling in their field and setting an example for all corporate legal officers to follow.
Kretz credited Shideler with shouldering a lot of the burden of getting women a place in the legal profession. And she noted that Shideler’s achievements have led to others looking beyond gender and paying more attention to what a person could do rather than who that person was.
“I have been blessed with those women and men in my career from day one who have supported and mentored me in this role,” Kretz said. “This is an opportunity not just to recognize Shirley but also everyone in this room who help each one of us help other people.”
As a young associate at Barnes & Thornburg, Roth met Shideler and was invited to some of the infamous partners’ lunches that put Shideler at the table as the lone female among the men. Roth was most impressed that the male partners treated Shideler as an equal, wanted her to succeed and were not intimidated by her intellect.
“I always looked at that as a very young attorney and thought, if I could be half of what she is, then I’ve done a really good job,” Roth said of Shideler. “Standing here and actually getting an award that has her name on it, means a great deal to me.”
Sobecki indicated the work that Shideler started is not finished. The AES executive echoed both Kretz and Hightman, saying she benefited from the support of others and she had an obligation to do the same.
“Most people who achieve any level of success in life couldn’t do it on their own,” Sobecki said. “(They) get help from the people around them and owe it to them to pay back and do everything they can to develop others, to show them the path to really achieving everything they can.”