Quartet of women leaders kick off WVU's Women in Law & Leadership initiative

By The West Virginia Record | Sep 29, 2011

MORGANTOWN -– When a fourth grade teacher advised Joyce McConnell to improve her handwriting, it wasn't an admonition. It was a prediction.

"She told me that someday I'd be in an important position, I'd be signing a lot of things and that my signature would matter," McConnell said. "It was such a small thing but it really stuck with me."

Now dean of West Virginia University's College of Law, McConnell is in a position to inspire others.

Earlier this year, she launched Women in Law & Leadership, an initiative to encourage women to explore a broad range of career possibilities, including the legal profession.

On Oct. 3, the College will host its first WILL event, a panel discussion featuring four accomplished women in leadership positions in the legal profession.

The panelists are Susan S. Brewer, CEO of Steptoe and Johnson; Katherine Dodd Combs, former vice president, corporate secretary and deputy general counsel of Exelon Corp.; The Hon. Irene M. Keeley, district judge for the U.S. Northern District of West Virginia; and Barbara Groves Mattox, director of tax policy and senior tax counsel for General Electric.

The panelists will explore the challenges and opportunities facing women pursuing careers in the business and legal professions. All but Brewer are alumnae of WVU's law school.

The event, which is open to the public, starts at noon in the Marlyn E. Lugar Courtroom at the WVU Law Center. A webcast is available at www.law.wvu.edu/womeninlaw.

Brewer has focused her practice in the area of litigation, with a concentration on professional liability, for more than 30 years, She has tried more than 100 jury and non-jury cases in state and federal courts and has been involved in appellate proceedings before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals. She has served as CEO of Steptoe & Johnson since 2009.

Dodd Combs has had more than 20 years of experience in corporate governance, having served in several executive and administrative positions at Exelon and one of Exelon's predecessor companies, PECO Energy Co.

Keeley practiced law with the firm of Steptoe & Johnson in Clarksburg from 1980-92, concentrating her practice in health care law. She was appointed as a district court judge by President George Bush in 1992 and served as chief judge of the Northern District from March 2001 to March 2008.

Groves Mattox' focus at GE is on U.S. tax policy, taking the lead on both Congressional and Treasury Department initiatives. She works closely with GE tax leaders in each of GE's businesses and with GE tax leaders around the world.

Complete biographies of the panelists are available at http://law.wvu.edu/womeninlaw.

"These are women who come from very different sectors and have had very different paths to success and perspectives," said McConnell, who will moderate the panel. "All have had successful careers and have managed to skillfully juggle personal and family lives as they've advanced through their careers."

McConnell began WILL to help reverse a national trend which has seen a decline in the number of women applying to and attending law school. Through research, she has seen evidence of fewer women remaining in the profession long enough to attain upper-level positions in private practice, business government and non-profit legal services organizations.

McConnell's initiative also ties in with WVU's Strategic Plan for 2020, which encourages diversity and an inclusive culture.

"I wanted the WVU College of Law community to be proactive in focusing on the opportunities available to women as lawyers and leaders," she said.

Along with her fourth grade teacher, McConnell, WVU dean since 2008, was inspired by several other women in her life, including Arlene Pacht, for whom she clerked at the National Labor Relations Board, and her mother, who rose to a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

"She believed in a woman's independence and her ability to take care of herself whether she had a family or not," McConnell said.

Future WILL plans include a recruitment video that encourages women to explore the WVU College of Law and features WVU alumni and students. Another event is planned for spring.

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