UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

A seat at the table

Law students hear from trailblazing women at annual Helen Hamilton Day celebration

Shon Hastings, chief judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, District of North Dakota; Lisa Fair McEvers, North Dakota Supreme Court justice; and Stephannie Stiel, North Dakota district court judge in Fargo (on screen); spoke about having a seat at the bench during Helen Hamilton Day. The program was moderated by Katie Winbauer (left), North Dakota Supreme Court clerk and UND Law graduate. Photo by Jan Orvik/UND Today.

Work hard. Get involved. Connect. Get up, dress up, show up. Say yes. Do good work. Don’t assume you’re not good enough. Prepare. Have a thick skin and a sense of humor. Don’t let yourself get to the point of burnout. Give credit to others. Don’t quit!

And when someone encourages you to do something, take the time to discern if it’s right for you. Weigh the pros and cons, and if it seems like the right path for you, go for it!

That was just some of the wisdom that sitting judges shared with law students at the annual Helen Hamilton Day on April 8, the day after Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that women belong in all places where decisions are being made,” said Haley Finch, a second-year law student who served as coordinator of the event. “That’s our theme. We believe that women should have a seat at the table.”

Helen Hamilton Day, celebrated since 1999 at the law school, honors the first woman graduate of the UND School of Law. Hamilton, who graduated in 1905, was the first woman to apply for membership in the American Bar Association in 1915, and her application caused a firestorm of controversy. Though the application was denied, she paved the way for others, and the ABA admitted its first women three years later.

Heley Finch, second-year law student, and Priscila Ulloa, third-year law student, coordinated the program, along with the Law Women’s Caucus Board. Photo by Jan Orvik/UND Today.

A seat in STEM, the boardroom, and on the bench

This year’s event featured panels of women who have a seat in STEM, the boardroom, and the bench.

“We wanted each of the panels to have people with a diverse background,” Finch said. “Women are breaking into the C suite. They are accomplishing amazing things.”

Denitsa Mavrova Heinrich

The program is planned by the Law Women’s Caucus Board each year, which is advised by Denitsa Mavrova Heinrich, the Rodney & Betty Webb Associate Professor of Law.

“The students have done a tremendous job,” Mavrova Heinrich said. “They began planning as early as last spring. They selected the theme, organized panels that fit the theme, worked on bringing people in and promoting the event.”

“When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked when there are going to be enough women on the Supreme Court, she replied ‘When there are nine,’” Mavrova Heinrich said. “And last night Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice. How incredible is that? ”

“The confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson was a perfect segue into our Helen Hamilton Day events,” said Priscilla Ulloa, president of the Law Women’s Caucus and a third-year law student. “Having representation of people of color in these high leadership roles gives us all hope. I grew up in a Hispanic household, and I look up to Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor all the time. I think it’s so important that the African American community can have that connection as well.”

Planning and executing an event of this magnitude is a lot of work, especially for busy law students. But they say it’s more than worth it.

“Every year that we do Helen Hamilton Day, we come out more inspired and empowered to go out there and follow in the footsteps that these amazing women have trailblazed for us,” Ulloa said.

Speakers on the STEM panel were Casey Furey, attorney at Crowley Fleck in Bismarck; Cathrine Grimsrud, managing director of mineral and land services for First International Bank & Trust in Bismarck; and Kim Heinle Nelson, senior quality engineer manager for Digi-Key Electronics in Thief River Falls.

The Boardroom panel included Angie Lord, attorney at Vogel in Fargo; Meghan Compton, chief clinic operations officer for Altru in Grand Forks; Melanie Stillwell, president and CEO for Western Cooperative Credit Union in Williston; and Rujeko Muza, attorney with Beveridge & Diamond in Washington, D.C.

The Bench panel was comprised of Lisa Fair McEvers, North Dakota Supreme Court justice; Shon Hastings, chief judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, District of North Dakota; and Stephannie Stiel, North Dakota district court judge in Fargo.

Career and life advice

The women offered career and life advice as they shared their experiences, including balancing family and other commitments. One panelist likened it to putting a puzzle together. Another said that obstacles are often self-imposed and compared progress to making one’s way through tall grass, pushing it down and widening it for the next person.

Gender and salary bias, along with managing high expectations and demands, were also discussed.

“I often tell students that we’ve made a lot of progress toward achieving gender equality, but we’re not there yet,” Mavrova Heinrich said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, and I’m so grateful that these amazing female law students are taking the reins and making sure we’re paving the way for those who are coming behind us.”

Planning the day was a labor of love, said Finch.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “But in the end, when you see the day turn out, you realize how much people are getting out of it. And that’s where the real joy is, being able to put on an event like this, carrying on a UND tradition, and seeing how much people get out of the speakers and networking and connections. I think that’s the most rewarding part, and we will remember how enriching this experience was for everyone.”