When asked what her current position at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein law firm entails, Catharine Arrowood answers simply, “I solve problems.”
One of the highest-ranked litigators in North Carolina and one of the first women to be named partner at a major law firm in the state, Arrowood has come a long way since she graduated law school. She paved the way to overcome discrimination from the many North Carolina firms who had “never had a girl lawyer” before, but who would happily accept her as a secretary. She now occupies her own windowed office in Raleigh. Sitting comfortably behind her note-covered desk and in front of the plaques and awards that line her office walls, lauding her accomplishments, she exudes an air of grounded perseverance.
Her journey couldn’t have been easy – trailblazing never is – and while we sat across the desk from her, Arrowood recounted the obstacles she faced along the way. “I always wanted to be a trial lawyer, and that was another challenge because women lawyers were rare, but women litigators were even rarer.”
Defying her parents’ wishes for her to go to an all-female school, Arrowood applied last-minute and was accepted to Wake Forest University– one of the first universties in the state to admit women. There, Arrowood saw a “period of very rapid change in higher education” – from extra limitations and strict curfews for women to co-ed dorms by the time she graduated.
That progress had not yet extended to Wake Forest’s law school, where Arrowood continued her education as one of only twelve women in a graduating class of more than 100:
One of my very close friends, she was a very outspoken feminist, and she used to get very harassing and vulgar phone calls that were very clearly from a classmate – because of things the person would say, you would know that only someone that was in the class could be the caller. And they never did find out who was making those phone calls. Some of the hostility from some of the men in our class was because of their view that we [the women] were in effect taking the place of another guy. And we were all very competitive, and so that was not well received in some quarters. But in fact some of my very closest friends were the men in my law school class, and they’ve remained very close friends over the years, as have a number of the women.
Arrowood noted that discrimination played a big part in her graduate experience, with varied outcomes. For example, since women were not encouraged to go to law school, only the very driven, “overachieving” women made it that far. Their need to prove themselves propelled a disproportionate amount of these “self-selecting” women to the top of the class. Discrimination became even more of a hindrance after Arrowood graduated, however. She described the difficulty she had searching for a job after graduating from Wake Forest University School of Law:
My father was a lawyer in my hometown, and I had worked in his law office off and on, as well as in our family business when I was in college and law school. He wanted me to come back and practice law with him, but everywhere I went when I was working for him while in school, everyone referred to me as “his girl,” which did not sit too well with me…. So I began looking for a job elsewhere, and I had great difficulty. I interviewed with a judge, who is now long deceased, who informed me that I could not [get a job] – since I had gotten married, [and] you could not be married and have a career if you were female. She was not going to hire me as a law clerk, which was a little bit discouraging. And then I interviewed with a firm in Greensboro that did a lot of school board work, and my father had done a lot of school board work, and I was very interested in education law. They said “Oh,” they’ve never had a girl lawyer there, but they had a secretary who was going to have a baby in the fall, and if I would like to come and be a secretary, I would learn a lot from typing the pleadings. And this was not an uncommon experience then, and it wasn’t unique to me.
Arrowood eventually settled at Governor Terry Sanford’s firm in 1979, which later merged with Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, due to its refreshingly accepting workplace culture:
Governor Sanford had the view that he wanted a diverse law firm, and other partners in the firm shared that view, and so I got very lucky to be hired by them after I finished my year at the attorney general’s practice. I’m practicing law with the same group of people, which is, I will tell you, very rare. My female law school classmates, I can’t think of a single other one that had that good fortune to land in a private law firm that was very supportive of them, and very intentionally helping them to succeed. I lucked out.
While Arrowood doesn’t necessarily view herself as a leader, she embraces opportunities to lead and recognizes the need for effective leadership in society. She describes leadership as “reaching a consensus on tough problems,” saying that it’s “easy to get people to agree with you when you’re dealing with problems that seem simple, but a true leader helps people work through tough problems.” Arrowood appears to fully embody her own definition of effective leadership.
When asked what she does to keep from burning out, Arrowood answered that her family, friends, and community work keep her energized. Serving currently as the president-elect of the NC Bar Association and as chair of the Board of the NC Symphony, as well as previously serving on boards of organizations like Planned Parenthood, Arrowood is driven by her work both in and out of the courtroom.
Arrowood says that, while overt sexism in the workplace may be a thing of the past, the ideas underlying it are alive and well in her field:
I call today’s problem marginalization. In the past, people might think, “Oh, well, I’m not going to hire that person because they’re female,” or “I don’t think I’m going to believe what they say because they’re female.” Few people will admit to themselves that they have such a bias. I believe that we have made enormous progress but must still deal with biased attitudes, attitudes that people may not knowingly or intentionally realize they have. I’ve seen a lot of training programs – sensitivity programs – where people who think that they’re very open-minded, and I include myself in that group, and who are quite sure that they can’t possibly have any biases, discover that they unconsciously have biases. Those unrealized biases create marginalization.
According to Arrowood, there are still many challenges facing women who are attempting to be competitive in the workforce. These challenges apply to women in the field of law and elsewhere:
There’s definitely still a glass ceiling, although I don’t like that word very much. You have to be very assertive, and that is sometimes not received very well. But I would not be sitting where I am today if I had not at the right times said, “Wait a minute. I’m not going to put up with that,” or, “I’m not going to go along with that,” or, “we have to change this, it’s not right.”