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First Ladies of Law

Diverse checks in with some of the nation’s women law school deans, including the only five who are Black. Despite tremendous gains made by women in our nation’s leading law schools, the numbers reveal that there is still room for improvement. As of the 2006-2007 academic year, 47 out of the 200 American Bar Association-approved U.S. law schools were being led by women, according to the ABA. Here, the deans we caught up with, many of them the first women to lead their respective institutions, reflect on everything from first lady Michelle Obama’s impact on the image of Black women lawyers to diversifying the legal profession. For more on their backgrounds and other reflections, visit

Linda L. Ammons assumed the deanship of Widener University School of Law in July 2006, becoming the first woman and African-American to lead the law school, which has campuses in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

On her career highlight: “The highlight of my career happens every May when students graduate and what they have been working so hard to accomplish is realized. Knowing I had a hand in that makes me feel very proud. Also, having a professor (Joe Biden) who becomes the vice president of the United States is exciting as well.”

Phoebe Haddon was named last month dean of the University of Maryland School of Law, the first African-American to lead the school in its 185-year history. On the challenge of diversifying law schools and the profession:

“During this period of severe economic downturn the temptation will be to retreat from efforts to diversify the profession and to strengthen the pipeline of students of color who are able to attend law school. The recession will also likely affect the availability of resources for less privileged students, disproportionately having an impact on minority students. I am also concerned about retrenchment in job offers and opportunities for advancement for new minority lawyers (as well as others). It is important for faculty and members of the profession to mentor students and young lawyers about productive and creative ways to meet the challenges of the economic environment.”

JoAnne Epps became dean of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in July 2008. Epps, a longtime professor at Temple, is also the first woman dean of Temple’s law school.

On Michelle Obama: “Michele Obama projects strength, competence and confidence. To associate those images with Black women who are lawyers is beneficial to everyone — those of us who are Black women lawyers as well as those who aren’t.”

Melissa Essary was appointed dean of the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., in July 2006. She is the first woman to hold this position.

On her career: “The highlight of my time as dean is the move of our school (from rural Buies Creek this fall) to the largest state capital in the country (Raleigh, N.C.) without a law school.”

Veryl Victoria Miles, in August 2005, became the first African-American and woman to serve as dean at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.

On the biggest challenge facing law schools: “The biggest challenges facing law schools and the profession include finding ways to address the high cost of financing a legal education to make it more accessible and inclusive, not to mention the impact that the current economic environment is having on the job market. It goes without saying that these challenges affect minorities and non-minorities alike, and all law school communities are wrestling with these issues.”

Cynthia E. Nance has been dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law since July 2006. Nance is the first woman and the first African- American to lead the law school.

On leading at the University of Arkansas: “Our law school was the first Southern law school to voluntarily integrate in 1948. I am aware each day that I am part of that proud and wonderful legacy.”

Rebecca H. White became the first woman dean of the School of Law at the University of Georgia in October 2004.

On the first lady: “Michelle Obama is an excellent example of the ability of women lawyers to do it all … just not all at the same time. Yes, her husband’s job is unique, but the choices she faced are not all that different from those faced by many working women. Putting a spouse’s career first, even when it means withdrawing from the work force to be the primary caregiver, is a decision made by many professionals, including lawyers. By making the choice that was right for her family, Michelle Obama is a highprofile example of the sequencing that takes place in the lives of so many women lawyers today.”

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