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VOL. 123 | NO. 208 | Thursday, October 23, 2008

Female Attorneys To be Inducted, Honored by AWA

By Rebekah Hearn

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Two women are being honored today by the local Association for Women Attorneys.

Jennifer Hagerman, currently the incoming president, is being inducted as president of the AWA for the 2008-09 year. Attorney Ruby Wharton also will be given the Marion Griffin-Frances Loring Award for her service and contributions to the legal profession.

The ceremony will be held at 6:45 p.m. at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis at 3700 Central Ave.

Hagerman served as AWA vice president for two years before serving as incoming president for the 2007-2008 year. She is an attorney at Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC. Wharton is managing partner at her own firm, The Wharton Law Firm, where she practices with one of her sons.

Multitasking comes naturally

At Burch Porter, Hagerman practices in complex commercial litigation and employment litigation, and has represented clients in various cases from employment discrimination to insurance coverage.

She received her juris doctorate from Vanderbilt University School of Law, and following that, Hagerman served from 1999-2000 as judicial clerk for Julia S. Gibbons, a former judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. She joined Burch Porter for two years before returning to serve again as judicial clerk to Judge Gibbons in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

From 2003-2004, Hagerman served as the AWA’s secretary, and then spent two years as vice president before becoming incoming president last year.

“Our process is pretty gradual; typically, the vice president becomes the incoming president, and then that person becomes the president,” Hagerman said.

“So when they asked me to be vice president three or four years ago, I was very honored that they thought enough of me to think that one day I would be qualified to be president.”

Hagerman chose the AWA’s theme for next year, “In the Interest of Justice: Moving Women Forward.”

“I think everybody in our organization is extremely excited about the state of women in the law right now,” said Hagerman, discussing the recently inducted chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Janice Holder, who made Tennessee only the third state in the country with a female-majority Supreme Court, as well as the increasing number of female Memphis Bar Association presidents in the recent past.

Shari Myers, the outgoing AWA president, said Hagerman is “wonderful.”

“She has an excellent work ethic, and she’s also so familiar with the AWA,” Myers said.

Myers called Hagerman a “role model for many female attorneys,” pointing to Hagerman’s ability to balance a career and family.

Solid standing

Wharton is strongly committed to the advancement of women attorneys, particularly African-Americans. In 1969, Wharton was the first black female graduate of the Boston College Law School.

Currently, Wharton said she focuses her practice more on probate work, although during her 40-year law career, she has practiced criminal law, employment discrimination, domestic relations law and contract disputes.

Wharton also is extremely active in the community, working for her church, serving as a foster mother and sitting on several boards, including the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Sacred Heart Southern Missions and the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

“I grew up with a mother who was very involved in her children’s activities and her community and worked hard in her church,” Wharton said. “I grew up in a family of service.

“It’s just our responsibility as human beings: We’re here, we occupy a little space, but we need to pay rent for that, and the rent is serving people other than ourselves.”

Myers had high praise for Wharton as well.

“She has really set the platform for other women to be able to achieve what they hadn’t really been involved in before,” Myers said. “So she really was one of those pioneers for us. I think (the award) is long overdue for her.”

Improving women’s roles

Hagerman and Wharton said that although much has improved for female attorneys over the years, there is still work to be done.

“I think we still have a few barriers in the area of private practice, and I think we’re pushing through those,” Hagerman said. “I’d love to see more female partners in the law firms, especially more females in the management of the firms. You still don’t see a lot of female managing partners.”

Wharton, who herself is a female managing partner, pointed out that while she’s seen quite a range in age in the women attorney events she’s attended, she’d like to see more range in practice area as well as in race.

“I have not really seen a lot of women who do criminal work, and that’s always been … something I’ve been concerned about,” Wharton said. “It always makes me wonder, why can’t we have more diversity? There’s age diversity in the (AWA), and like I said, I’m not that intricately involved in the association to where I could say this is a fact, but it appears that most of the ladies I’ve seen do civil work.”

Wharton also said most legal organizations – including the AWA, the Memphis and Tennessee Bar Associations – could give “an extra effort to go out and recruit African-American women.”

Myers said while her practice area of family law tends to keep her within her own realm, she agrees with Hagerman and Wharton about the disparity of women in certain practice areas.

“From what it seems to me, just from being in the courthouse so much, it does appear that (many) areas are male-dominated, and I think (Wharton’s) right, that it would be nice to see some women being out there, and also being recognized for what they do,” Myers said. “I see these awards that are given, and there are so many men getting the awards, and very infrequently are there women who get recognized for their contributions.”

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