By Kelly Twedell
Photo by: Jen Tarbox, www.jentarboxphotography.com
With the fourth largest bar in the state, Fayetteville is fortunate to have so many female legal professionals who also make a difference outside of their respective careers. Meet three local powerhouse ladies who were recognized and presented the North Carolina Women of Justice Awards for 2013. The women either reside or have previously worked in the realm of law in Cumberland County. The honorees are: Judge A. Elizabeth Keever, Rebecca Britton and Sarah D. Miranda
The awards are an annual honor to celebrate the success of female legal professionals in our state. Selected by a panel of distinguished judges, the recipients are dedicated to their work in our community and are paving the way through their involvement in mentoring and other worthy endeavors that enrich the community.
“It was a very pleasant surprise!” exclaimed recipient Rebecca Britton. “It was exciting to go out to Charlotte and meet women from around the state, many of whom I knew, coming together with a different story. Each person winning the award brings something different to the table.”
It is no surprise that A. Elizabeth Keever ended up being a judge. To some, it appears she was born arguing about fairness and protecting other’s rights. Attending law school was just a formality putting her on her journey.
As a tireless advocate for families, she was also recognized in 2013 as North Carolina Lawyer’s Weekly Woman of the Year. Fayetteville proudly claims Judge A. Elizabeth Keever and lauds her work both inside and outside of the courtroom. She is a favorite among numerous circles in Fayetteville, and a friend to many.
After starting her career in the District Attorney’s office before being elected onward to the bench, Judge Keever shared that the reason she ended up staying in that area of law was that she loved the work and was able to make a difference in the lives of children in our community. Further explaining that the court at that level touches more and can have a positive impact in the daily lives and decisions made. “It’s an evolving thing,” said Keever. “We’ve looked at different areas and added different programs to make it better for those folks touched by the court system.”
For nearly 40 years, Keever, an ever so humble servant in the community, was quick to credit a comprehensive team approach when it comes to solving problems and forging ahead with solutions. “We are fortunate in this community because everybody tries to work together,” she said. “It makes a tremendous difference when you can move forward with support.”
While some talk about giving back, these women let their actions speak for themselves, and they don’t have much idle time on their hands, as a result. “Get involved in the community and find something that you want to work with and become truly part of your community,” advised Keever to young law school graduates. “It makes a difference not only to the quality of your life, but also to the quality of your work.”
There have been many endeavors that Keever is proud of, but the Cumberland County Dispute Resolution, designed to mediate disputes between people with relationships to bring resolution to underlying issues is one that stands out for really making a difference in the lives of others. From The Child Advocacy Center, Safe Haven, to The Women’s Center, Keever has been part of so many valiant efforts. As the original chair of the board for The Women’s Center, Keever is proud to see how the organization has grown and the work that they’ve been able to do to help so many in her 10 years since its inception. In the legal realm, she has served with the Judges Association and also on the board at the National Center for State Courts.
Not to worry. When Keever officially hangs up her robe, it is just to fulfill a bucket list cross-country road trip across the U.S. with her cousin. Professionally, Keever is asking the Governor to commission her as an emergency judge, to serve on conflict cases across that state or as needed to fill in locally. She also plans to continue her involvement at the Child Advocacy Center and plans to conduct remediation work in the family law courts pertaining to the financial obligation portion where she can continue to make a difference.
All three ladies agreed that getting into law school is very competitive and a hard work ethic is needed early on to thrive. Rebecca Britton dispensed some sage advice for young women: You must do your best at what you do everyday and not limit yourself. “Kill them with confidence. Prove yourself!” is something she told many law students at Campbell. “As a young practitioner, I used to love being underestimated, it gave me an advantage!” Britton said that you must be able to take your lumps, learn from them and use them to your advantage.
As part of a class of 200 students, Keever said she was one of 25 females and within 10 years of graduating law school it was almost half and half. “Women have become more and more aware of the belief that they can move into professional areas and there’s not that barrier to go to law school that there once was.” This community has been very responsive to female judges, though there is greater parody in government work than in the private sector.”
Rebecca Britton shared that she learned something different at each of the big three firms she has worked at in her career. “As you grow professionally, opinions differ and the make up of firms change over the years and you find yourself in a place where you feel you need to move on.” Holding fast to a specific ideal of how law should be practiced as a profession, not as a business, was the catalyst in Britton’s decision to launch her own firm after gleaning different experiences from former institutions that grew her to the point of realization and with a big smile, she declared that she has never been happier. The staff at Britton Law, P.A. are always doing great things and Rebecca brags that sometimes her favorite board meetings are over coffee on her back patio with her spouse, John, before they head into the office to tackle the problems of the world.
Britton has contributed much to the legal community in North Carolina. While being very humble about her involvement in the mock trial program since 1992, Britton has taken part in many roles in the program making a huge impact on both students and its volunteers putting a good face on the legal profession to aspiring students. Professionally, her affiliation in North Carolina Advocates for Justice (NCAJ) and involvement have been extensive and she held the position of president, the fourth female president in its organizational history making professional contributions through her efforts at the helm, along with her consecutive roles in leadership leading up to it. “I’ve made wonderful contacts all across the state with professional colleagues,” Britton said.
Britton’s roots as a clerk and then partner at the Beaver, Holt, Sternlicht & Courie P.A. have had a long-term influence on her. Biting her teeth on challenging, unpopular cases was often what that firm took on and it is that kind of thinking that Britton has adopted into her own philosophy as she founded her own practice. The attorney recalled being fairly new out of law school when she, alongside Rick Glazier, tackled a pro bono wrongful conviction case involving a young Marine named Lesly Jean. He had wrongfully served nine years of a life sentence. Britton explained that they represented him from a civil standpoint arguing evidence that cleared his name conclusively, through the DNA evidence 18 years after the crime. Their work on this case paved the way and forever changed the law in North Carolina allowing an increased compensation for those wrongfully convicted, along with legislation known as The Innocence Protection Act. Having both a personal and professional impact on her legal career early on, Britton laughed as she said she gained a lifelong client and had just spoken to him by phone the day prior. “What I and my staff at the firm pride ourselves on is being able to make a difference in our line of practice,” said Britton quietly. “We come in touch with people and families who have suffered devastating losses. At that point it goes beyond just representation in the lawsuit, we try to get them to the resources that they need. They become part of our firm family.”
A former firm colleague of Britton’s is Sarah Miranda. She has been at the Hutchens, Senter, Kellam & Pettit, P.A. since 2004 and has worked in family law, juvenile and domestic law. “When I joined the firm there was a handful, two or three, female attorneys. It’s wonderful to see women coming into the profession and mentor young female attorneys,” said Miranda. She recommends to young law students that they need to really be aware of what their strengths are and find an area of practice that they are passionate about. “Don’t be in law school and lock yourself in, because you may find that something else is better suited for you,” advised Miranda. “You might fall into a niche after some job hopping after law school too.”
Miranda did just that after she jumped into the specialized area of law surrounding the practice area of bankruptcy, she knew when the position was open at the Hutchens firm, she saw it as an opportunity and it did not take long before she got to know everyone in the area and the judges at the federal court level. Explaining the nitty-gritty of her job, Miranda said that bankruptcy is a lot about problem solving, as she represents creditors after somebody has gotten into financial straights as she moves forward working toward a satisfactory resolution. Her current practice area is on civil litigation, creditors rights and bankruptcy. “Civil litigation is a developing area of practice that opened up, and it can be anything not criminal related,” she shared. “When you’ve been in Fayetteville long enough, you get to know which firms have reputations in varying circles of practice.”
While these legal professionals might log in long hours, they all expressed that they strive to maintain balance.
Britton puts this into practice by being intentional about family vacations at Christmas and in the summer, spending time back home with family in Maine. Keever said that she has close friends and a relative that she enjoys traveling with, when she is not doing physical labor in her yard, church activities or going to movies and plays to take a reprieve from the rigors of her work.
Miranda is both a tough litigator and skilled attorney and proudly wears the cape of single mom to her 12 and 5-year-old daughters and credits maintaining balance and good local support to her success and contentment. She is active in her church, kid’s school and of course, making time for civil service and volunteering.
Partnering in leadership, social and mentorship roles, Miranda just joined a newly formed local Fayetteville chapter for women attorneys in all practice circles. “We support each other and I’m very active in the Women in Profession Committee with the State Bar,” she said. “Women are supportive of each other and want to see one another do well.” With several different mentors throughout her legal career, she said their strategy and advice on being a woman in law has been valuable, and of course, she appreciates her mentors who have been encouraging towards her parental role, outside of work as well.
Appointed to the NC Lawyers Mutual Advisory Board, Miranda also sits on the Board of Directors for the Cumberland County Bar Association, and as if that were not enough, she has been an active participant in our Habitat for Humanity chapter since 2006. “It’s opened the door for me to use my skills to help other Habitat for Humanity affiliates in different parts of the state with legal issues as they arise,” Miranda said. Community service has been ingrained in her through her mom, where she would partake in different charities and she wants to set that example for her daughters.
“I love to be able to go out into the community and to be a part of opportunities and I love the direction Fayetteville is going in and the quality of our professionals coming back to Fayetteville; infusing new ideas and youth is encouraging,” said Miranda. “It’d be great to form a smaller subcommittee with our bar and to maybe have a women’s section, for networking and mentoring opportunities.”
All three women echoed the same advice to aspiring young lawyers. Find an experienced attorney to be a mentor. Fayetteville’s legal community is very active and it seems there is always the chance to sharpen and encourage one another at the monthly bar luncheons and meetings — not to be confused with local watering holes, mind you. Camaraderie is key when banding together in a community to make it a better place for its people and businesses.
From teaching litigation at Campbell University for a number of years, to responding to contacts and requests for mentorship opportunities, Britton knows the importance of having mentors and resources. “As the president of NCAJ, one of the things we put into place was a mentoring program for new lawyers. I had the opportunity to learn from many lawyers who are each very different, but learned greatly from each one of them and I try to pay that forward.”
A salute to these women who not only demonstrate leadership, professionalism whose contributions truly make a difference in the justice system or legal community. These women have shattered gender stereotypes in the profession and lead the way in giving back. No closing arguments to dispute here, these ladies are respected and are each real path breakers in so many ways beyond just legal realms continuing to make strides beyond our city borders…raising the bar.