Helping Each Other and Helping the Community: How GABWA and GAWL Develop and Support Women Lawyers
As a new lawyer, I found that being closely associated with other lawyers who were more experienced really helped me. I’ve always sought out mentors throughout my career and after more than 20 years, still seek their counsel. That’s one of the reasons I’m involved with organizations including the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys (GABWA) and the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers (GAWL).
I recently spoke with Terrica Redfield Ganzy, president of GABWA (and the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights), and Annie Jordan, president of GAWL (and executive director of DeKalb Pro Bono) about their organizations’ missions, their work, and how you can become involved with them.
Q: How did you come to be president of the organization?
Terrica: I moved to Atlanta for my job at the Southern Center for Human Rights in 2004 and got involved with GABWA in 2005. I started going to meetings and meeting people, and I quickly found myself getting involved in committee work. I think I started with the community service committee and worked my way up in GABWA mainly by being someone who was willing to engage and fill in wherever needed. I held different leadership roles and served on various committees over the years. I would probably have been in line to be president earlier, but I took a step back from trying to take on significant leadership roles after I gave birth to my first child. I did not have family support nearby and I needed to prioritize my children. I stayed involved in committees and in 2015 I began leading GABWA’s Professional Development Academy (PDA). After three years in that role, I moved into executive leadership positions and eventually was elected president. [Her children are now 11 and 14.]
Annie: I have been a member of GAWL since 2013 after graduating from law school. I had graduated and was waiting on bar results and needed a job, so I was trying to network as much as I possibly could. I joined a lot of organizations but with GAWL, I really felt like the members were invested in helping me and it felt like a community. I’ve been on the board since 2015 and have served in a lot of roles and learned a lot about the different aspects of the organization that way. For the last few years, I’ve had my eye on serving the organization in an executive capacity and I’m grateful to have been elected President.
Q: What is the mission of the organization?
Terrica: GABWA’s mission is “to nurture, support, and galvanize the power of Black women attorneys, advocate for women and children, and empower our communities.” Our mission means that we’re building power among Black women attorneys, in particular, making sure that we are paving the way for Black women attorneys in political positions, as judges, and as leaders in our community. We are heavily involved in community support, making sure we are using the gifts and talents we have to benefit the people who need them most.
Annie: The mission of GAWL is to enhance the welfare and development of women lawyers and to support their interests. We also have a separate 501(c)(3) organization, the GAWL Foundation, that is the service arm of the organization. Our goal is to allow each organization to be fully dedicated to its individual purpose: a professional association that supports women lawyers and a philanthropic organization that taps into our community of women lawyers to service the larger public.
Q: How does the organization strive to fulfill that mission?
Terrica: One of the ways that we galvanize the power of Black women attorneys is through our Judicial and Public Office Academy. This academy is designed for people who are interested in holding public office. We take the academy participants through a series of trainings about the nuts and bolts of what it takes to run for or be appointed to political or judicial positions.
A huge benefit of GABWA is the strong network of support. In a lot of places Black women lawyers are scarce — there aren’t a lot of Black women in large law firms or as corporate counsel. GABWA offers a hub for those attorneys to engage with each other, share ideas, talk about how they are managing their practices, and really offer opportunities to be helpful and mentor others. GABWA has members throughout the state with regional chapters in Albany, Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah, and these regional chapters allow members to connect locally to address needs specific to their communities.
We host monthly community service activities as part of our mission to empower our communities and advocate for women and children. We host an annual MLK Day of Service where we go to various shelters that support women and children and serve breakfast and spend time with them; we participate in various breast cancer awareness races; we participate in the fundraiser for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Legal Food Frenzy; we work with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s Saturday Lawyer program; and so much more. Through the GABWA Foundation, our 501(c)(3) arm, we also have a Wills Clinic that services people who are terminally ill and women in need; a Sister2Sister mentoring program that supports girls who encounter the juvenile justice system; an annual health fair that provides free health screenings; and a scholarship program that has awarded more than $600,000 to women law students at Georgia law schools.
Annie: Our organization builds a community — a place where women can connect with other women lawyers. That’s what our members are looking for — to connect with other women lawyers, to network, to create a sisterhood to rely on. We have many committees the serve this purpose, including our Mentoring Committee that facilitates our mentoring circles and neighborhood networking breakfasts; our Programs Committee the organizes CLE programs; our Leadership Committee that facilitates our Leadership Academy; our Special Events Committee that does purely social events; and many others. We pretty much have something going on every week.
We’re a statewide organization that has chapters throughout the state, not just the metro Atlanta area. We’ve had as many as 950 members; right now, we have over 700.
The foundation is our service arm and raises funds to grant scholarships to law students and to give grants to 501(c)(3) organizations. We also do community service work, including supporting the Nicholas House which provides shelter for unhoused people — it services entire families so families can stay together. We provide dinner there every month. The foundation also organizes a “Week of Service,” where we partner with multiple non-profits to participate in a variety of service projects throughout the state. The goal is to make philanthropic service easy and accessible for our busy members.
Q: How does the organization help develop new/less experienced attorneys?
Terrica: We’re the first bar association in the state and perhaps the nation to develop a Professional Development Academy that is designed to provide third-year law students and newer lawyers, those who have been practicing four years or less, with some of the skills that aren’t taught in law school, such as how to hang your own shingle, the importance of learning how to be a resource to your firm and team, ways to stand out and build your professional brand, and more. While in law school, students are focused on learning the law, and we try to give them an advantage so that they start their careers successfully.
We also have programming specific to law students, such as our Black Law Students’ Retreat that we host in conjunction with the Gate City Bar Association; our Blue Jeans Brunch, which is a networking reception that allows law students to engage with more seasoned attorneys in an informal atmosphere; and our legal writing workshop.
Annie: We have a mentoring committee and have a big focus on transitioning young lawyers and helping newer lawyers. We have thriving law school chapters at GSU, at Atlanta John Marshall Law School, Emory University and at UGA. We also have a mentoring pairing program that lets law students sign up to have a mentor from GAWL that more than 100 lawyers participate in.
Once people graduate from law school, we have a lot of mentoring programs available. We have GAWL.edu, which is a boot camp for lawyers with three years of experience or less. It provides a comprehensive curriculum for what newer lawyers need to know, like introductions to specific practice areas, providing a consultant to help with dressing/wardrobe, how to take professional head shots, and how to help them build their networks.
For lawyers at any phase in their careers, we have neighborhood networking breakfasts that are small groups based on geography and mentoring circles that are again based on geography. You apply to be in one, and you stick with the group for a long time — I’ve been in mine for 10 years. We also have our leadership academy for lawyers who have been in practice for five more years or more to help them level up their careers, build networks with judiciary, with other law firms, and to continue to improve their skills.
Q: What are some of the challenges that women attorneys face, and how does your organization assist with those?
Terrica: Women attorneys who are also mothers must figure out how to manage their careers and their families, which can be uniquely challenging due to the demands and often fast-paced nature of law practice. GABWA has a Working Moms Section that provides support to women attorneys who are also raising families. This group allows moms to connect with and learn from each other.
In recent years there has been a lot more attention paid to Black women’s leadership and the need to foster it, but there’s been some retrenchment from a commitment to supporting groups that have historically been denied opportunities, funding, and other forms of support. Thus, our current challenge is to navigate diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in this climate and the potential implications for women lawyers seeking to advance their careers.
Far too often, when people think about what a leader looks like, they don’t think of a woman. Society conditions us to believe that men lead, and women follow. While we are lightyears ahead of the perceptions and social norms of the 1950s or even the 1980s, we still have not come far enough. We want equal respect, equal opportunities, and equal pay. We must continue to lean into leading with authenticity, knowing that leaders do not have to look or behave a certain way to be effective. GABWA was founded by Black women who were frustrated by being told to “wait their turn” for positions of leadership or for doing the heavy lifting while watching others receive the credit and praise for their work. The women who founded GABWA decided that they could choose their own destiny and created an organization that helped them do just that.
Another challenge we face is increasing the pipeline of women lawyers. The numbers of Black women enrolling in law school are steadily declining, which will likely have devastating impacts on diversity within the legal profession in the years to come. We’re tracking these declining numbers, and in partnership with other bar associations and community organizations, we host Roadmap to Law School events at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) to convince more college students to consider careers in the law.
Annie: GAWL was founded by the first woman to become a female lawyer in Georgia, and she had to fight the Georgia bar, the judiciary, and the legislature to become a lawyer. We’re in our 95th year. First it was about access and then over time as women have been able to gain access, the challenges have changed. And over the years, the organization has evolved to help women lawyers face these new challenges.
For example, in recent years we commissioned studies not just to help women in general but to get specific data about what women lawyers are facing. Those have yielded illuminating results like that having something as arbitrary as a 9-to-5 schedule makes firms less successful and women less fulfilled. We did a “Leaky Pipeline” study in 2017 that looked at why women leave the law in higher rates than men. Our aim in gathering that data is to provide women lawyers (and the legal community in general) with insight into how firms can better support women lawyers.
Q: Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is a growing field within the practice of law. Do you think there are challenges, or opportunities (or both) for female mediators and arbitrators? How so?
Terrica: I think in terms of opportunities there is a huge opportunity in the ADR space. Whether stereotypical or not, women are good at seeing both sides of an issue and good at communicating with empathy and understanding and have traits that are highly valued in this space. One of the challenges is there isn’t a lot of marketing of ADR as a career opportunity. We should do a better job of promoting this career opportunity in law schools and to attorneys throughout Georgia.
Annie: Women who choose to go into ADR are going to face the same traditional barriers, assumptions, and challenges that women have experienced since women have become lawyers. Traditionally when people think of a lawyer, they think of a man, and that will translate to thinking of a neutral as a man. When people change that traditional paradigm, they will be more successful and get better results. When people change their attitudes, we can do a sea change.
Q: Finally, can anyone join your organization?
Terrica: GABWA is open to everyone who is willing to support our mission. GABWA’s membership is broad and diverse.
Annie: GAWL is open to anyone who believes in the organization’s mission, including men and non-attorneys.
About Tabitha Ponder
Hon. Tabitha Ponder earned a B.S. degree in Psychology from Albany State University in 1996 and a J.D. from Mercer University School of Law in 1999. She began her legal career as an Insurance Defense Attorney. In 2007, she became the Founder/Managing Attorney of the Ponder Law Group, LLC, a statewide litigation firm focusing primarily on Injury Law and Real Estate. She is now a part-time Cobb County Magistrate Court judge and a certified Civil/Domestic Relations Mediator and Arbitrator. Ponder also has experience with family law, complex litigation, business law, worker’s comp, liability, and she’s a Special Master for Cobb Superior Court.