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“A Woman Had a Place, and It Was Not Out Practicing Law”

Dusty Burke, now a partner at the prestigious firm Vinson & Elkins, talks about graduating from law school during an era when women were not expected to use their degrees.

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When Dusty Burke, a partner at the prestigious law firm Vinson & Elkins, entered the University of Texas Law School in 1965, she was one of only six female students in a class of hundreds. At the time, few women practiced law; from 1920 to 1970, the number of female attorneys in Texas hovered at less than four percent. Those demographics began shifting during the women’s movement of the seventies, and now UT Law School educates more women than any public law school in the country. But what was it like back when Burke, former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Sarah Weddington—who argued Roe v. Wade—went to UT Law? As Burke (pictured left with her given name, Miriam McEvoy) would tell it, it was still, in many ways, stuck in the fifites: Big firms refused to interview women. Law students voted on who was the prettiest among their few female peers. And she was not expected to actually practice law after graduation.

But after spending more than fifteen years as professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, in Houston, Burke applied to Vinson & Elkins, becoming an associate at 45. She eventually made partner, and earlier this month, she received the Meritorious Service Award from her alma mater. During her acceptance speech at the dinner, she referred to a place she called “the Ladies’ Lounge,” a hangout inside the school where female students gathered. It was a throwaway line in an otherwise fascinating story about her life, but I was intrigued by the idea of some sort of physical space where heavyweights like Hutchison, Weddington, and others formed bonds and developed camaraderie. I asked Burke to expand on what it was like to graduate from one of the country’s most distinguished law schools during an era when no one expected you to use your degree.

Pamela Colloff: Can you tell me about the Ladies’ Lounge?

Dusty Burke: Outside of the women’s bathroom was a small anteroom, and there was a sign on the door that said, “Ladies’ Lounge.” It had a couple of Naugahyde couches and chairs. Because there were only eleven women in the law school, including my class when I got there in 1965, it was just big enough for all of us. Its purpose was not to confine women to that particular room; it was just a convenient place for us to gather. That’s where I would go in between classes. I’d leave my books there. If you were a guy looking for a woman, you would knock on the door to the Ladies’ Lounge and there we would be.

PC: I’m envisioning a room that is bright pink. Lots and lots of pink.

DB: [Laughs] No, the Ladies’ Lounge was not designed to attract, or be like, the women. It simply became our home. It was our refuge.

PC: So what happened in there, exactly?

DB: Almost every morning, I would have a race with my friend Paula Young Smith to see who could finish the crossword puzzle in the Daily Texan first. We were on our honor not to look at it before the other arrived, and then we would say, “Go!” Kay [Bailey Hutchison] would sit there and study, and Paula and I would do crossword puzzles.

PC: Did you eat lunch together there? Study together?

DB: Sometimes we’d have lunch there. We didn’t have study groups like they do now. I usually studied by myself. Sometimes I’d sit there and prepare for the next class.

PC: I’m trying to picture you, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Sarah Weddington all hanging out in what is essentially a bathroom.

DB: Sarah was there. She was Sarah Ragle then. She used to type our papers. She was the only one who could type. I paid Sarah twenty cents a page, and she would type my papers for me. She was a whiz on the typewriter too.

PC: I think most readers will know that Sarah Weddington went on to argue Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. Was she a crusader, for lack of a better word, back then?

DB: No, she was not. Not at all. She was very quiet. She was not necessarily an introvert but just kept very much to herself.

PC: Did you and the other women students ever talk to each other about why you had chosen to go to law school?

DB: We were all there for different reasons, and it wasn’t to get a job with a big law firm. That simply wasn’t an option. In fact, I remember when Baker Botts came to interview my senior year, the firm put a sign up on the board that said, “Women need not apply.” It was just the way life was.

PC: Was that true of all the big firms?

DB: Baker Botts stands out in my mind because my fiancé—I picked him up along the way in law school—was applying to Baker Botts. We were at a recruiting dinner in the fall of ’66, or maybe the spring of ’67, and I remember the recruiting partner was talking to me. Then he turned to the table and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we hired Dusty instead of Bill?” And everyone just burst out laughing.

PC: I’m speechless.

DB: There was a feeling then that a woman had a place, and it was not out practicing law. My husband-to-be didn’t want me to work. If you were a lawyer going to a big law firm, it was embarrassing if you had a wife who was working. It almost looked as if you couldn’t afford to keep her. So it wasn’t a plus for a man to have a woman who was working let alone practicing law.

There were so few options, really, available for women. Most women got engaged senior year and got married right after college. If a woman was going to work, her viable job choices were to teach—generally in elementary school—or to be an airline stewardess. There were no women in law firms—not in large Texas law firms, at least. I don’t recall there being any women prosecutors or judges. No women law professors.

PC: So if there were no jobs for you and your female classmates, why did you all bother to go to law school at all?

DB: We all had a different purpose. One woman wanted to open up her own practice. Another woman was going to practice law with her husband. Another didn’t intend to practice. She did very well in school, but I think she was going to be a housewife. Kay indicated that she wanted to go into politics. She knew that early.

PC: Why were you there?

DB: I had taken a business law course when I was a business major at the University of Colorado, and I absolutely loved it. My business law professor taught in a Socratic way, which is how law school is taught too. He would ask questions rather than give answers, and it was fun. Most of my peers thought it was an unusual decision. But no one tried to discourage me, because no one saw it as actually leading toward a career.

PC: Was it difficult for you to get in to UT Law?

DB: At that point there was really no applying to law school. I had to look on a chart, and if my grades were X and my LSAT scores were Y, then I was automatically in. So I was admitted to the University of Texas. It was the only law school to which I applied. Tuition was fifty dollars a semester! Honestly.

PC: Did you or the other female students outshine the other male students, grade-wise?

DB: That’s why I love [longtime UT Law professor] Ernest Smith. I took two of his classes—property and marital rights—with my husband, who was not yet my husband at that point. And Ernest Smith always gave me a better grade than him. I think it was on purpose. It may have been just one point higher, but he always did it.

PC: How did other professors treat you?

DB: Charlie Wright—Charles Allen Wright—was one of the most prominent professors at that time in the law school. Just a fantastic man. He would not call on women. And his reason was because a woman should not be asked to speak if she didn’t want to. So he would go down the row and skip over me. And I loved it—I really did. I could actually listen to what was being said and enjoy the class instead of having to read and prepare for him to call on me. I don’t think I ever cut his class. I was just delighted to go in and really listen. I took constitutional law from him and federal courts.

PC: So you never got to speak in his class?

DB: Oh, if I wanted to—yes, absolutely. If I raised my hand and there were ten other hands up, I would be the first one called on. If I wanted to speak, I could. If I had a question, it would be answered. If I wanted to opine on a case, I could make him not skip over me by simply raising my hand as he was proceeding down the row.

PC: So you were never offended when he skipped over you?

DB: I was never offended. In fact, when I heard years later—not that many years later, perhaps five or seven years later—that women were offended, I was appalled. Why would you be offended when all he was doing was being deferential to a woman? It was like having a man open a door for you. It was a much more gentlemanly time.

PC: Did other professors treat you differently?

DB: I remember on the last day of my torts class, my professor, who was a man named Allan Smith, called on me and I was not prepared. So I said, “Not prepared,” and I stood up to leave, because that was the protocol. Well, the poor man didn’t know what to do. Guys got kicked out of class all the time for not being prepared, but he did not want to kick a woman out of class. He could hardly continue his lecture.

PC: Did the guys give you a hard time? Were there disparaging comments?

DB: I kept waiting for them. I kept waiting for, “You took my friend Joe’s place. He didn’t get in and you did.” I never, ever heard a negative comment. Most of my friends from law school were guys, because there were so many more of them. I have always had guy friends, from the time I was little. That wasn’t any different in law school.

PC: Tell me about Portia.

DB: Portia was the queen of the law school. It was crazy! There was a queen, just like a homecoming queen. I can’t remember how you got to be a finalist. You had your picture taken and then I think the law school voted on the finalists. I don’t remember who the other finalists were in my group, but I do remember losing.

PC: What did you and other women students do as graduation neared?

DB: We looked forward to taking the bar. I mean, we didn’t have jobs to look forward to, so the bar is what we looked forward to. Most of the guys had jobs lined up. I don’t think any woman had a job, with the exception of one who had an in-house job at Texas Instruments. But I don’t believe it was in their legal department.

PC: Did you ever consider not taking the bar, given that you had no job prospects?

DB: Never. It never occurred to me not to take it.

PC: How did you do?

DB: I got the third highest score in the state. I think it may have been an easier bar, because I took it in October, rather than in July. But I studied extraordinarily hard. We couldn’t afford for me to take a prep course, so I just got the outlines and studied hard. And it never occurred to me not to take it. I don’t know why.

PC: Your fellow female classmates took it too?

DB: Every one of them. Yes. They all took it. 

PC: What were your plans after the bar?

DB: Well, at that point I was married. I got married in my second year in law school to Bill Burke, who was in my class. And neither of us had any plans for me to have a career. It was just expected that I was not going to work. We were going to have a family and I was going to be the typical wife, and the fact that I had a law degree was okay as long as I didn’t use it. The fact that I passed the bar was fine, as long as I didn’t use it.

PC: What happened next?

DB: Bill was clerking for John R. Brown on the Fifth Circuit, so we were living in Houston. Kay had graduated the year before, and she came and stayed with me and Bill for a while, so she could look for a job. And it was very, very hard for women at that point. But she was determined to look, and I joined her. We parked the car one day in downtown Houston—this was early 1969—and started walking and pounding on doors. There were no jobs available to women who wanted to practice law. I ended up getting a short-lived job with First City National Bank doing corporate trust work. Kay landed a job at Channel 2 as a reporter. 

PC: So I’m skipping over a tremendous amount of personal history here, like your long teaching career at the University of St. Thomas and raising three children. But I want to talk about when you went to work at a law firm, which didn’t happen until after the women’s movement helped open a lot of doors in the seventies and eighties.

DB: Yes, other women paved the way for me. A couple of years after I had my last child—I had her when I was forty—I decided I was going to look at the big firms, because I saw women being hired by them. This was ’87 or ’88. My husband had been the hiring partner at Baker Botts and he kept hiring women. To tell you the truth, I was jealous. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted that. So I decided that I was going to try to do it myself.

I couldn’t believe I was applying at firms that would never have looked at me when I had graduated from law school. Those jobs had been forbidden fruit for so long, so I had trouble believing anything was going to be different when I walked into Andrews Kurth, or Fulbright, or Vinson & Elkins. I was very, very nervous. Why would they be accepting of me now when they weren’t years ago? And, of course, they were. It was just a night-and-day difference.

What was even more startling was that I got offers. And that’s how I came to Vinson & Elkins. I came here in January of 1990. I was much older than the typical associate. I was 45 years old at that point! That was a big gamble for V&E.

PC: When you started working at Vinson & Elkins, was it like coming full circle? There you were again, in downtown Houston, where you and Kay had been knocking on doors all those years ago—except this time you had a job at a big firm.

DB: Yes! Oh, that’s so fun, to think of it that way, but that’s exactly right. 

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