UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Trailblazing women hold court at School of Law

On March 16, legal professionals and students gathered for symposium inspired by UND’s female pioneers of law

Helen Hamilton Day lobby
The lobby outside of the Gerald W. Vandewall courtroom was adorned with purple decorations for the event. T-shirts and other merchandise were sold by the Law Women’s Caucus to commemorate the event. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

In 1905, Helen Hamilton became the first woman to graduate from the UND School of Law. She later became the first woman to apply for membership to the American Bar Association, a move that both sparked controversy and encouraged other female lawyers to follow suit.

Each year, the UND School of Law celebrates Hamilton’s pioneering efforts that paved the way for women to enter the legal profession. Inspired by Mildred Johnson, another UND School of Law graduate and the first woman to try a case before the North Dakota Supreme Court, this year’s symposium featured 11 women in legal professions who gathered with students and faculty to discuss the achievements and the challenges women face in law.

“Throughout her nearly 50-year career, Mildred Johnson shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings, proving that a woman’s place is not confined to the sidelines, but at the forefront of legal advocacy,” said Cynthia Wences, a member of the UND Law Women’s Caucus and coordinator of the Helen Hamilton Day event, as she addressed the audience in the law school’s Gerald W. Vandewall Courtroom, where the event took place.

leaders in the courtroom panel
The panelists of “Leaders in the Courtroom.” From left to right: Gianna Avalos, family law attorney and TikTok’s “Single Mom Attorney”; Kristin Binder, founder of Revive Law Group; Erica Shively, partner at Elsberry & Shively; Suzanne Jones, co-managing partner at the Minneapolis office of Gordon & Rees. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

‘Empowered women empower women’

The event featured three panels. The first, “Leaders in Alternative Legal Careers,” featured law graduates who found careers outside the courtroom. They discussed how they navigated the job market using their law degrees, a task that can sometimes be challenging.

“It took me a while to stop buying the narrative that I needed to figure out how to use my law degree. And now, many years later, I realize that I use my law degree every day,” said Emily May, corporate compliance customer remediation director for U.S. Bank. “Standing in the courtroom and arguing cases is not the only way to use your degree, and realizing that has been invaluable.”

May mentioned that she found her way to the U.S. Bank after a mentor encouraged her to apply for a consumer affairs position at the Reserve Bank of Minnesota. The theme of mentorship was prevalent across the panels, with fellow panelist Jennifer Cook, assistant professor at the UND School of Law, calling the opportunity to mentor students at the School of Law “one of the greatest joys” of her life.

“If I can instill those lessons with my students, be that role model, and then also teach those skills and flexibility, that mental toughness, then I think I’m doing my job,” she said. I’m hoping that if you can see it, you can be it. That’s one of the reasons that I really love the position I’m in now.”

Cook said Denitsa Mavrova Heinrich, fellow School of Law faculty member and Rodney & Betty Webb Associate Professor of Law, was her mentor and inspired her to do the same for her students.

“Empowered women empower women,” Cook said regarding the legacy of mentorship she described.

The next panel, “Leaders in the Courtroom,” featured similar themes. Kristin Binder, founder of Revive Law Group, cited panelist Erica Shively, a fellow UND Graduate and partner at Elsberry & Shively, as a mentor and friend.

“Erica was an invaluable resource when I was starting my practice. All her guidance really did help me get to where I am today,” she said. “I think talking with colleagues and reaching out to more experienced attorneys, even when it’s not a formal mentorship, is important. No matter how long you’ve been practicing law, you’re always learning.”

Despite the support systems these women have established, they recognize that women still face unique challenges in the field. Suzanne Jones, co-managing partner at the Minneapolis office of Gordon & Rees, explained that misogyny is still something she must contend with.

“I hate that this is still a thing, I still show up to depositions and people assume I’m a court reporter, or a male counsel will keep dropping me off emails because they think I’m an assistant and not a partner,” Jones said. “Those sorts of interactions persist. They are not as common as they were when I first started, but that is something that we as women have to continue to stand up to.”

In agreement, Shively acknowledged that women still contend with these attitudes and that addressing them is sometimes necessary.

“Chauvinism is still a very real thing, and I think it’s a hard thing to address. Sometimes I address it very directly – which some of my male colleagues probably don’t like, but I’m willing to forgive them,” Shively said with a laugh.

“Sometimes my job is to educate,” she continued. “I think that that can still be a very real part of what we do. I do think that we also have so many men who have our backs, though.”

Leaders on the Bench and in Public Office panel
Three accomplished women took the bench at the end of the day to offer words of encouragement for law students. From left to right: Judge Kristin Venhuizen, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones and Justice Lisa Fair McEvers. Photo by Walter Criswell/ UND Today.

Inspiring a future generation of legal leaders

The panelists said that one of the most critical steps to remedying this was for women in law to share their experiences. The event’s final panel, “Leaders on the Bench and in Public Office, showcased precisely that.

Judge Kristin Venhuizen and UND graduates Shannon Roers Jones – a North Dakota state representative – and North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Lisa Fair McEvers each offered advice and insight as they described their respective journeys, while also acknowledging the presence of sexism in their professional lives.

McEvers said that, though she believes confidence is important for women, the “good old boys” network can be a hindrance. She offered an anecdote about a male politician who dismissed her in favor of her husband, even though she was the Labor Commissioner at the time, as proof that it sometimes can’t be avoided.

“We were at this dinner because of my position and my connections, and this person was running straight to my husband to ask questions,” she said. “It was like I was an invisible person in the room.”

Despite this, the panelists agreed that women have made great strides toward equal representation in elected office. Judge Venhuizen said that she’s witnessed a shift in the disparity throughout her career.

“I’ve been a lawyer for 25 years, and when I started, there was one female in the State Attorney’s Office. Now, the State Attorney’s Office is primarily women,” said Venhuizen.

“We’ve seen changes just in the 25 years that I’ve been doing this. My inspiration has been seeing how those women have flourished and accomplished.”

McEvers agreed and added that increased diversity in elected positions is a net benefit to the community. She mentioned resources such as Ready to Run North Dakota, a bipartisan program that supports campaigns for women, as a starting point for women interested in pursuing judicial and political careers.

“There are several reasons why it’s important to have women on the bench, and one of them is to make the court system reflective of the constituents it has,” she said. “I want to see the day where I’m not designed the ‘female justice;’ I’m just a justice, right? I’m the only female justice on the bench and so that’s the reference, but I don’t want there to be an asterisk by my name.”