Leveraging justice: Mizzou law sets the stage for women breaking boundaries in law school and beyond

More women are attending law schools nationwide, pushing for equal representation in the legal profession.

Missouri Supreme Court Judge Mary Russell discusses her experience at Mizzou Law in the early ‘80s, a period that remains a special and defining time in her life.

March 29, 2023
Contact: Courtney Perrett, 573-882-6217, cperrett@missouri.edu

The University of Missouri School of Law is driving forward equality in the legal profession by cultivating an ever-growing number of successful women lawyers. Out of 422 judges in Missouri, 138 are women. That’s just over 30%. Three of those women — all Mizzou Law graduates — sit on the bench of the state’s supreme court. Others serve on district courts and as commissioners.

Last year, the MU School of Law had a first-year cohort that consisted of 56% women — a trend that follows a national movement of more women choosing to attend law school, positioning these institutions as key stakeholders in educating attorneys that will go on to serve their communities in a myriad of ways.

“The public’s perception of lawyers affects their perception of the legal system in general,” Paul Litton, interim dean of the School of Law, said. “I think for people to trust the legal system and the rule of law, it’s better that the profession reflects society.”

A legacy in the making

In 2020, women outnumbered men in law school classrooms across the country for the fifth consecutive year, a report by Enjuris found. In 2018, Mizzou Law’s first-year cohort was 38% women, which ramped up to 48% in 2019, 46% in 2020 and hit a majority in 2021 at 51% for the first time. These numbers, however, represent decades of progress toward equality.

“I knew that there were considerably less of us, and that being a female lawyer was unusual,” said Missouri Supreme Court Judge Mary Russell, who graduated from the MU School of Law in 1983, a year when one-third of the graduating class was women. “Back then, I certainly didn’t know any female lawyers; there were probably only a handful of female judges in the whole state. By 1983, there’d still never been a woman on the Court of Appeals. There had never been a woman on the Supreme Court of Missouri. By then, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But other than that, it was virtually unheard of for a woman to have those responsibilities.”

Raised on a dairy farm outside of Hannibal, Missouri, Russell always excelled in school. After dabbling in journalism through her undergraduate studies at Truman State University, she interned for a congressman in Washington D.C., where she saw the law put into practice by attorneys every day. It was during her time at Mizzou Law in the early 1980s that Russell began to realize she could contribute more to the legal community than she ever dreamed, perhaps even aspire to a judgeship.

After a career of more than four decades, half of which were spent as a Missouri Supreme Court judge, Russell is a role model and inspiration for women in law school and beyond as a pioneer in the legal community with an unsurpassed dedication to public service.

“I think women can be whatever they want to be,” Russell said. “And I think more women are thinking about graduate programs than probably ever before. And because of that, law school gets a fair increase of that pool.”

For Wensdai Brooks, a first-generation law student who is poised to graduate in May, attending Mizzou law was a lifelong dream.

“I think that more women going to law school is a signal to the next generation that you belong in this building and this profession,” Brooks said. “We want to hear your voice; we want to stand up here with you. I think representation is really important, and I didn’t see other girls go into law school when I was a kid. At the beginning of this year, I had a young woman come up to me, and she said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but you were a teaching assistant in one of my undergraduate classes, and I came to law school because of you.’ Just knowing that I’m showing the future generation that the world is their oyster is what it’s all about for me.”

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