While in college, Melissa Jackson Howell was sexually harassed at work by her supervisor. She told one of her professors, who suggested that she take his employment law class. She followed his advice, and soon it became clear that studying law was what she wanted to do. “I always had a knack for talking too much and arguing,” Melissa said with a grin.
Melissa is one of many local women working in the legal system. Let’s meet three of them and find out more about their decisions to enter the legal profession. Though their journeys have been different, they have met similar challenges. Today they know they’re where they need to be.
Melissa, a Chesapeake resident, began her legal career at a large law firm in 1995 and began practicing law in 2002. She worked for a couple of different firms in the area before starting her own practice, Howell Law Group, PLLC, in April 2013, specializing in labor and employment law.
Her decision to start her own practice was based on the desire to have a better balance between work and family life. “When I got pregnant with my first son, now 11, my success rate diminished greatly,” Melissa said. “You have to be willing to give much of your life to the firm, and if you’re not willing to do that, someone else will.”
Melissa transitioned to working at a mid-sized firm that was less demanding and encouraged the attorneys to have well-rounded lives. She was able to continue in her specialty while reducing her hours. There’s a consensus among every female attorney she knows, Melissa said: “We’re driven to do everything very well, and the thought that we’re not able to spend as much time with our kids, working, or with our spouse…you always feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
After her second son, now 9, entered school, she jumped back into work at a large firm. She was sitting at her desk one day, wondering why she was making a profit for the firm when she could be making it for herself, she said. She’d gone to a seminar with the CEO of a financial company. He told her to write down her vision.
“I wrote that I wanted to start my own business one day,” said Melissa. So she sat in her office and prayed, “God if this is what you want me to do, I need you to make it very obvious to me.”
She had her answer within a half hour, she said. A woman who worked across the hall told her she was giving away her office furniture. “I got almost everything,” Melissa said. Then she got in her car and said, “God, now I’m scared to death.”
The furniture was stored in her garage for about four months before she found her office space at Dominion Tower in Norfolk. “I have not regretted my decision a day since,” Melissa said. “I wanted to offer a big firm experience to businesses in the area at a reasonable price,” she said.
There’s so much pressure in a large firm to keep producing, she said. “They have forms for everything. We used to joke that we had to fill one out before we could even go to the bathroom,” she said.
She appreciates what she learned at the firms she worked for. “I had the benefit of the training and education from experienced attorneys,” she said. Now she’s happy that she doesn’t have pressure from anyone else saying she’s not doing or billing enough. She strives to deliver service to her clients in a timely manner and take care of her family.
Being an attorney is challenging and demanding, Melissa said. “It’s taking on the burdens of others in hopes that you’re helping them navigate a really tough situation, getting them the best results possible.” Yet it’s, very, very rewarding, she said. “You know you’re encountering people at their most challenging time, and you can take that burden off them.”
Our geographic area is oversaturated with attorneys, Melissa said. “It’s changing the dynamics of the field.” There is a desire for some to offer quick services, to undercut other attorneys, she explained. “We’re at a pivotal stage in how to deliver services.” There’s a big push to offer online forms and not much personalized service. But, so much is circumstance-specific, she said. “What we do is an art, not a form-driven thing.”
In her field of expertise, Melissa has job security no matter what’s going on with the economy. Over the years, if clients know that you are doing what’s right for them, they will make referrals to you, she said.
“Every so often, if I get to a point where I don’t know if I should be doing what I’m doing, I’ll get a card or an email from a thankful client that just confirms that I’m where I need to be,” she said.
WHERE SHE SHOULD BE
Lynne Marie Kohm, 55, a professor of family law at Regent University School of Law, agrees with Melissa. “It’s where I should be,” she said. She’s been a professor at Regent for 21 years and is also director of faculty research, scholarship, and development. Plus she’s a wife and mother. Her 22-year-old-son is a first year Regent law student.
“I sensed a greater call to the law while I served as a missionary to college students in the 1980s,” she said. “I wanted to make the world a better place. Here at Regent Law, we have a motto: ‘Law is more than a profession. It’s a calling.’”
Lynne continues to practice law, as well as teach. How does she make her busy life work? “You have to keep your priorities,” she said. “Master, mate, mission. God first, husband and family, and mission after that. She keeps scripture from Deuteronomy 6 in mind, that the commandments and patterns you teach your kids are so important.
Like Melissa, Lynne sees the legal field changing dramatically. With technology in the office and courtroom, as well as electronic filing with clerk’s offices and records rooms, the delivery of services is changing, she said. Online services often do not offer legal advice, yet advice is often what the client needs more than any document, Lynne said.
Law firms are no longer able to provide the necessary mentoring a new lawyer may need before they begin practicing, Lynne said. This causes law schools to be more proactive in providing practicum, clinical, and experiential student learning.
A great deal is also changing about the law itself, said Lynne, who also fears there’s a general diminishing respect for the rule of law. But women are innovative, Lynne said, so “it’s a great time for women to go into the law.” Women considering entering the legal field should act now, Lynne said, because the student pool is low. She admits that people may be afraid of taking risks with the economic challenges we face, but sometimes taking a leap of faith pays off handsomely. “The more adventurous are going to get all the benefits,” she explained.
Women make good lawyers for three reasons, Lynne said. First, women are innovative. They’re always looking for the best, not just the typical solution. Second, women tend to be good caretakers. “It’s our nature,” she said. With our family focus and decent bedside manner, we can really customize solutions to a client’s needs. Third, women bring a different and unique perspective to the practice.
“All avenues and career opportunities are open to women in the law,” she said. The sky’s the limit. “Or maybe the glass ceiling, but even that is a barrier just waiting to be broken.”
The gender gap for attorneys has closed, Lynne said. “In 1993, 17 percent were women. Now we represent about 51 percent.”
“As a woman, I not only want to be excellent, but even more so than my male colleagues,” Lynne noted. And don’t be afraid of the future, she said: “There is such a great adventure out there—and more opportunities than ever.”
READING THE LAW
About seven months ago, opportunity knocked for Christine Davy, 27, of Virginia Beach. She was at her Virginia Beach Circuit Court job, where she is a deputy clerk, when her supervisor approached her with an idea. Would she like to start “reading the law” with the supervisor’s daughter, Rachel?
The term refers to studying the law under the guidance of an attorney, instead of the traditional law school route. Prior to the creation of law schools, this was the method for entering the legal profession. It’s an internship-mentor program. Both tracks take three years. Christine and Rachel would be mentored by Rachel’s father, attorney Mark Smith.
Christine said she was approached because her supervisor knew she wanted to attend law school. In fact, she’d attended Campbell University in North Carolina for her freshman year of college because of their law school. But she got sidetracked for personal reasons, she said. She received her bachelor’s degree in justice studies from James Madison University in 2011.
Now she and Rachel have the opportunity to “read in” together, Christine said. They begin their journey this month. “It all worked out perfect,” she said.
Instead of spending three years at law school, she and Rachel will study the same curriculum, under the tutelage of Rachel’s father, instead of a professor. Each week they will spend at least 18 hours studying the curriculum at their mentor’s firm. Three of those hours have to be one-on-one with the supervising attorney. They will review the material together. Then, the girls will study an additional seven hours on their own. That’s 25 hours a week of study for 42 weeks a year, Christine explained.
She and Rachel study in an office, one subject at a time. Then they have an exam before they move onto the next course. She plans to keep her full-time job, adjusting her workweek to four ten-hour days and Saturday.
Christine’s parents both work in the court system, and Christine said she feels comfortable and around it and interested in court proceedings. At work she said she’s always seen an even number of females and males. “I personally have never felt that my gender is an interference in any way,” she said.
She thinks she will specialize in criminal or environmental law, but she has to dive into her studies before she’ll know, she said. Whatever her field, she said, there will always be a need for attorneys.
For more information about Howell Law Group, call 757-630-4030 or visit www.howellhrlaw.com.
For more information about Regent University School of Law, contact Lynne Marie Kohm at 757-352-4335 or visit www.regent.edu/law.