Breaking the courtroom's glass ceiling

By Ed Brock

There's no summer vacation for 25-year-old Salvia Smith of Jonesboro.

Smith graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law on May 17 and now she is studying for the Georgia Bar to realize once and for all her dream of becoming an attorney.

"I was always thinking about it," Smith said. "When I went to college and started taking law classes I saw how judges make their decisions and make things right."

Smith is part of the next generation of women seeking careers in the courtroom.

Since 1993 female students have made up between 38 and 48 percent of the student body at UGA Law School, according to Director of Communications and Public Relations Heidi Murphy.

At Georgia State University College of Law the numbers are about the same.

"It's been consistent at 49 percent to 50/50 ratios of women to men," said Georgia State spokeswoman Cheryl Jackson, adding that those ratios apply to at least the past five years.

There was no shortage of fellow female students in Smith's class at UGA.

"It was probably at least half and half," Smith said.

When Benefield was a new lawyer she wasn't alone, either.

"When I started practice it didn't seem like there were very few of us," said 46-year-old Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield, who graduated from UGA in 1983. But then she became a judge 10 years later after serving as a prosecutor with the Clayton County Solicitor General's Office and then the District Attorney's Office.

"That's when Gov. Zel Miller started appointing a more diverse population of judges including women," Benefield said.

While there were many women practicing law, there was still a limit to how far they had advanced.

The problem of advancement is one Smith, who might focus on real estate law and working on low-income housing projects in Atlanta once she passes the bar, might face in her future.

"I think more and more women are going to law school and becoming attorneys but in a lot of the large law firms there aren't as many women partners," Smith said.

It's her understanding that that may be because one must have a certain number of years of experience before they are picked to become a partner.

"But with women something might happen. You might get pregnant and have to take some time off," Smith said.

That may be a consideration, Benefield said. But time could change that.

"As more and more women become judges I definitely think they will be more mentoring going on, helping other women achieve as they have," Benefield said.

Getting a mentor, either male or female, is something Benefield recommends to all young lawyers like Smith.

"Most lawyers I know have been very generous with their time with young lawyers," Benefield said.

Along with being taken seriously and being promoted, Smith and her classmates, both male and female, face a tight job market in general.

"We didn't expect the kind of economy we have now," Smith said. "A lot of law firms this year aren't hiring and some are even cutting back."

Women probably made up about 50 percent of the student body when attorney Betty Williams-Kirby graduated from John Marshall Law School in Atlanta in 1998. That trend can be a big plus for society as a whole, said Williams-Kirby, 50, who has an office in Jonesboro and was recently recognized by the Clayton County Pro Bono Project and Atlanta Legal Aid as the new attorney with the most pro bono work.

"That translates into other leadership positions and I think women tend to be more humane," Williams-Kirby said.

Meanwhile, Smith, who graduated in the top five in her class at Spelman College and has a list of other honors on her resume, is taking focused classes in preparation for the mid-July bar exam. She's confident she'll pass and do honor to other members of her class.

About 96 percent of UGA students pass the bar, Smith said.

"I knew that graduating from there I would be prepared for the test," Smith said. "I only plan to take it once."