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‘Inspiring Not Just for Women but for All Law Students’

March 15, 2024

The Penn Carey Law Women’s Association’s annual dinner honors the legacy of Dr. Caroline Burnham Kilgore L’1888.

On March 20, the Penn Carey Law Women’s Association (PCLWA) will hold its annual dinner to honor the legacy of Dr. Caroline Burnham Kilgore L’1888, the first woman to graduate from the Law School at Penn.

This year’s dinner, held at Ballroom at the Ben, will include up to 200 students, between 50 and 75 law firm attorneys, and as many as 10 women faculty members, according to Amanda Cohen L’25, Co-President of the PCLWA.

“We try to create the fundamental relationships between attorneys and students interested in a law firm track,” said Caitlin O’Flanagan C’22, L’25, Co-Chair of the Kilgore Dinner.

Thanks to generous funding from law firms, admission to the dinner is free for law students, who embrace the opportunity to converse with top attorneys, expand their horizons, and listen to inspiring stories from keynote speakers such as this year’s honored guest, Deborah Archer, the first Black woman to be named president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Devon McCarthy L’25, Kilgore Dinner Co-Chair, said Kilgore’s experience teaches the value of persistence and determination. “Things can always improve,” McCarthy said, “and we should pursue what we want.”

O’Flanagan added that Kilgore is “inspiring not just for women but for all law students.”

The Legacy of Carrie Burnham Kilgore L’1888

Kilgore began her unflinching effort to matriculate at the Law School in 1871, when there were only five women lawyers in the United States. After a one-year apprenticeship with her attorney-husband, she applied to what was then known as the Law Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She was met with scorn as the dean threatened to resign if the school permitted her to attend.

Although Kilgore pursued on-the-job training, legal officials refused to consider her qualifications. She also petitioned the Pennsylvania General Assembly to ensure the right of all women to practice law in the Commonwealth, but her lobbying efforts were unsuccessful at that time.

Finally, in 1881, the University permitted Kilgore to attend a public lecture, and on June 17, 1883, she graduated and received her diploma along with 123 men in her class.

Three years later, Kilgore became the first woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar; she was also among the first women admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

PCLWA Initiatives

In addition to providing valuable mentorship opportunities, the PCLWA hosts academic panels, professional panels featuring attorneys from various legal industries and career paths, and social events, such as the Kilgore Dinner, to encourage and support active engagement within the community of Penn Carey Law women.

The Association’s overarching goal is to increase the ranks of women in the legal profession, especially at the levels of Senior Associate and Partner, where women are often underrepresented in proportion to the number of women law school graduates, said O’Flanagan, who served on the Dinner Committee as a 1L. At last year’s dinner, she sat next to litigation and transactional lawyers, and this summer, she will work at Simpson Thacher.

McCarthy, a former paralegal and administrative assistant at the women-owned law firm of Younkins & Schecter LLP, saw her career trajectory shift as she interacted with attorneys through the PCLWA; she will work in international trade law this summer at White & Case in Washington, D.C.

McCarthy said while the dinner is the PCLWA’s biggest of the year, the Association holds events nearly every other week. Recently, with the Penn Carey Law Entertainment & Sports Law Society, the PCLWA celebrated National Girls & Women in Sport Day, which honors the achievements of women athletes, recognizes the impact of sports participation for women and girls, and advocates for equality in sports.

O’Flanagan added that the PCLWA hopes to establish a Public Interest Chair in the future dedicated to the development of programming for students interested in public service careers.

Learn more about the student organizations that enrich the Penn Carey Law experience.