By: Scott Houston, TML Intergovernmental Risk Pool
A little more than a decade ago, a young Texas Municipal League, or TML,1 attorney named Lauren Crawford wrote an article in Texas Town & City about pioneering women in municipal law. The article is available at texasbar.com/womenmunicipallaw and is a worthy read.
One was Analeslie Muncy who, in 1969, was a 3L at the University of Texas School of Law. The career services office called when they finally found a firm that might hire a woman. The interviewing attorney told her they were replacing an attorney who happened to use a wheelchair, and the firm was looking for “a woman or a cripple” to replace him. She politely declined.
Eventually, Muncy would find a job as one of four, first-time female assistant city attorneys for the city of Dallas. A Dallas Morning News article2 declared them “quicker to grasp detail” than men but warned they were “too worried and upset” for the courtroom. Ten years later, she became the city’s first female city attorney.
In the decade after Muncy graduated, the number of first-year women law students jumped from10% to 36%. When Crawford wrote her article in 2010, they made up 47% of total law school enrollment. Women now make up 54%.
When I was licensed in 1999, women in the profession seemed the norm. I was the TML general counsel/director of legal services for much of my 20 years there. Most of my mentors were women. My admiration for Susan Horton (who was the league’s first female general counsel) and her successor, Karen Kennard (who later went on to serve as city attorney of Austin), is boundless. I never considered their gender when I sought their counsel. However, I couldn’t fathom the challenges they still faced.
Crawford was our law clerk during much of her time at UT Law. A vacancy opened just as she graduated, and her devotion to municipal law made her hire a no-brainer.
I naively assumed that 50 years after Muncy’s misogynistic experience, a young female attorney need not expect to encounter anything similar. I was very wrong about that. Crawford did as she argued against a public official’s initiative. The official rudely said he would move forward anyway.
Crawford eventually left the league for private practice (a common occurrence for TML attorneys), and she’s now senior assistant city attorney for the city of Lewisville. I recently spoke to her about what’s changed for women in municipal law since she wrote her article. Ever the optimist, she said—overall—things are better. To support that, she pointed out how many Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex city attorneys are women, including her and her city’s attorney— Lizbeth Plaster. Moreover, almost every municipal firm in the area has multiple women partners.3
For example, looking solely at the Dallas-Fort Worth area where Crawford practices, the top jobs in Fort Worth, Arlington, Plano, Grand Prairie, Lewisville, Carrollton, and North Richland Hills are held by outstanding attorneys who also happen to be women. Many other metroplex cities, such as Addison, Cleburne, Terrell, and New Hope, are represented by outside counsel female attorneys as well.
Crawford’s real takeaway is, while women still deal every day with prejudice and stereotyping, they also prove their legal skills every day at TML, in the metroplex, and beyond.
Crawford credits Plaster, Horton, and others who taught her that women’s contributions to municipal law are valued, and the career offers not only interesting and stable employment, but a great community of hardworking, supportive, and fun attorneys.
Among the others she credits are Janis Hampton, who hired her at her first “in-house” job with the city of Bryan; Christy Drake-Adams, a former TML attorney—now serving on the attorney general’s prestigious opinions committee—who showed that an attorney can excel professionally while being fully present for their family; Evelyn Njuguna, TML’s first female director of legal services; and State Bar President Sylvia Borunda Firth, who served as city attorney for El Paso and has been a mentor to countless attorneys in the field, including me.
Another force of nature is the late Susan Rocha. Rocha worked for TML, founded the now-defunct Municipal Affairs Division at the Texas Office of the Attorney General, served as an assistant city attorney in San Antonio, and later partnered with a municipal law firm. She served as president of the Texas City Attorneys Association, or TCAA, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association, where she worked to advance the interests of women and minority lawyers across the country and beyond.
Borunda Firth’s service to the profession also includes being a past president of TCAA, which is an affiliate association of TML that provides CLE and networking opportunities for those interested in municipal law. Of around 500 members, at least 200 are women. Crawford told me how lucky she felt to be involved with the group from the beginning of her career. Prior to leaving TML, she was named assistant general counsel to TCAA. She watched the community support her (and each other) professionally and personally. The members modeled for her how to be an all-around good person.
Crawford also credits me as a mentor, but I can unequivocally say that she has taught me more than I ever taught her. I can tell you what these women have meant to me—as lawyers, colleagues, mentors, and friends. In this world that sometimes seems to be going in the wrong direction, these women give the gift of optimism. And, to me, that means everything.
1 TML is an association of over 1,150 cities that provides training, legal services, and legislative advocacy to city officials.
2 “Ladies in Court: 4 Hired as Assistant City Attorneys,” Dallas Morning News (Oct. 2, 1969).
3 I’m not aware of any complete database of this information, so I had to just look at a map. My sincerest apologies to anyone I left out.