A sign of change for Philadelphia: the first female chair at the Morgan Lewis law firm!

Congratulations to Jami Wintz McKeon on her appointment as the first female chair of the venerable Philadelphia law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius! Her appointment strikes me as another of those moments to note how dramatically things have changed for the better.

When I came to Philadelphia to work at the Pepper Hamilton law firm in 1975, one of my female law school classmates went to work at Morgan Lewis becoming, as I recall, only the third woman lawyer working at that firm, then the largest law firm in the city. Both of our large law firms, along with several others, were located in the old Fidelity Bank building on Broad Street between Sansom and Walnut, across from the Union League. Both of those buildings were featured in “Trading Places”, the great 1983 movie starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd set in Philadelphia. The name on the Fidelity building has since had to be sandblasted repeatedly as it changed owners, to First Union, then Wachovia, and lately Wells Fargo.

I would occasionally hear from my law school classmate about the challenges of being a woman lawyer at Morgan. Her most harrowing experience was rushing to a firm meeting at the Union League, and being physically restrained at the front door and ordered to use a different entrance, as was required of female guests at that time. When she complained to her firm about being subjected to this indignity, the firm’s response was in effect to either accept the local custom or find another job. Morgan was not going to give up using the convenient Union League for its meetings.

Even in 1975, the Pepper Hamilton law firm where I worked had many women lawyers, including partners serving on the executive committee. As a joke, members of the firm announced in the Legal Intelligencer that a women lawyer’s field hockey league was being formed, along the lines of the popular lawyer’s softball league, knowing that our firm was the only one in the city with enough women lawyers to put together a team.

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At that time, as I recall, Pepper Hamilton never had firm events at the Union League despite its convenient location, because of the League’s discriminatory policies towards women. The firm’s chairman, Augustus “Gus” Ballard, told me that had not always been the case. He recalled heading to the League for a lunch meeting with summer associates, only to find the group standing together on the front steps. He was advised by the associate in charge that the women in the group refused to use the alternate entrance. Upon announcing that everyone else should proceed to lunch, he was further advised that the men in the group also refused to enter the Union League if their female colleagues couldn’t enter through the front entrance. That incident resulted in a different firm policy regarding the Union League.

Times have, indeed, changed. And Jami Wintz McKeon’s ascension to chair the Morgan Lewis & Bockius law firm puts an exclamation point on those changes.

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