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Federal Judge Marjorie Rendell Tells Penn Law Women about the "Dark Ages for Women in the Law"

June 03, 2009

It was 1980 and Marjorie Rendell had just given birth to her son, Jesse. As a partner at Duane Morris LLP, she felt her responsibilities precluded her from taking more than a month off from work. When childcare arrangements occasionally broke down, Jesse would accompany her to the office, where she tried to conceal his presence from clients. But it wasn’t always easy. He would sometimes make a noise during a conference call, and when clients inquired about the noise, she’d respond that she was just clearing her throat. 

“It wasn’t easy to admit that you had a child, it was considered a sign of weakness” said Rendell, who is now a federal judge.  Clients and colleagues would question a woman’s dedication to her career. 
In her 35-year-long career as a bankruptcy lawyer and a judge, the Honorable Marjorie Rendell has lived through what she calls the “dark ages for women in the law.” During the keynote lecture at the Penn Law Women’s event in April, Rendell imparted lessons she had learned along the way on work, family and civic engagement. 
For the first five years in her career, Rendell was the only woman practicing bankruptcy law in Philadelphia, and she had to prove that she was just as tough as the men. Instead of adopting an aggressive attitude, Rendell chose to establish herself with intelligence and subtle humor. When her male colleagues would call her honey, she would call them buster.
Despite the pervasive sexism, Rendell found an excellent mentor, Dave Sykes, who made her success the “barometer of his success,” she said. Often a client would not want to be represented by a woman, but Sykes would push Rendell forward as a competent, hardworking attorney. She advised students to find colleagues who push them forward as a person who can get the job done. 
The skill set she picked up from her practice-- litigation, negotiation and a deep understanding of commercial matters-- turned out to be good preparation for her work as a judge, she said. Today she plays a dual role: She is the First Lady of Pennsylvania and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. 
The idea that you can have balance is a myth, said Rendell. “As long as you know there isn’t balance, and that’s normal, you can deal with it.” The secret to managing multiple responsibilities, she said, is finding help. Rendell advised students to surround themselves with their own support group. 
She also encouraged students to complement a professional career with nonprofit work, because it can feed a passion, make one a better person, and prevent tunnel vision. “For lawyers it makes good sense. I used to think it was a way to get business, but it’s not about that. It’s about sharing your ideas and skill set with other people,” she said. 
In closing, she said the three most important things in the legal profession were the three C’s: civility, clarity and credibility. She advised students to react to situations in a civil manner; to communicate clearly with clients, partners and court members; and build credibility every day through thoughtful interactions with colleagues and clients.