Zealous Woman Judy Langevin participated in a Law360 Female Power Brokers Q&A, published on May 19, 2014.
Judith Bevis Langevin is a partner in Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason LLP's Minneapolis office. She focuses her practice on employment litigation. She frequently lectures and writes on employment law topics for both legal and business audiences, and serves as a mediator of employment disputes.
She defends employers in discrimination and wrongful termination litigation, including sexual harassment cases, and provides advice and training on personnel issues. One of her special interests is theater-based training for employers and employees.
Langevin served as the assistant director of the Saint Paul Department of Human Rights from 1973-1975 and the assistant commissioner for enforcement for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights from 1977-1981. She managed the investigative and contract compliance activities of these two agencies.
Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys' network?
A: Unlike most women, I broke in as a partner. In more than 40 years, I have never practiced law at a firm as an associate. If I had, I probably would have been a miserable failure.
For almost a decade after graduation from law school, I was in public service, and I spent most of that time convinced I would never practice law. I was lucky enough to hold public service jobs in which I developed expertise in discrimination law, learned how to manage, gained confidence, and became known in the local employment bar. That served me well when I finally decided to give private practice a try. It took several years of successful practice in my own firm, however, before I was willing to join a big firm. I did so as a partner with enough experience and knowledge to command a reasonable amount of respect. As it turned out, my path was probably far easier than the one taken by other women of my generation.
Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?
A: It can be lonely. There are few women lawyers of my seniority still in private practice, and very few role models for women who want to practice law indefinitely in a firm.
Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.
A: I was an equity partner and a practice group chair at a large firm. One morning I was at work quite early, getting ready for a client seminar in the conference center. A very young man — a first-year associate who I’d not yet met — appeared at the conference center door and said, “Hey! I need the library lights turned on. You want to get in here and turn them on for me? Like right now?” He then turned and walked away. Perhaps he thought I was a staff person, although speaking to anyone that way, staff person or not, was unacceptable. I turned on the lights for him without comment, but made a point of introducing myself to him at the next firm function, and reminding him that I was the person who had helped him with the library lights. The look on his face when he realized who he’d barked at was gratifying. He didn’t last very long at the firm — not because of me, but, I was told, because he exercised poor judgment in his work. That sounded about right.
In 40-plus years, I've encountered gender discrimination countless times. I've handled it brilliantly, badly and everything in between. What matters is that it happens less often now — to me and to others — than it used to, and it will happen even less often 10 years from now. Women and men in the legal profession are much less likely to engage in gender discrimination, and much less likely to put up with it.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?
A: Do really excellent work. Model civility. Be kind and generous. Be flexible and low maintenance about the small stuff, and save your energy for big issues. Be as brave as you can be about important things. Be gentle with yourself. Don't forget to go home.
Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?
A: Invest time and energy in good management. Many of the issues that drive talented women from firms stem from management failures. Be thoughtful about how success is defined in your firm, and be sure that it isn’t defined too narrowly. Firms that define success in narrow terms, based on the outdated stereotype of a male breadwinner with few family responsibilities, will see few women succeed. There are many ways to be a productive lawyer and many ways to add value to a partnership. Insist on the inclusion of women in policymaking.
Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.
A: I greatly admired the late Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl. Throughout her career, which included both great challenges and great success, she never lost her warmth or sense of humor. She was a loving mentor and friend to hundreds of women and men in the legal profession.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.