Karen Tidwall didn’t think girls became lawyers. Her high school English teacher changed that.
“We were all talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up,” Tidwall recalled. “I said, ‘I think I want to be a paralegal,’ because it didn’t dawn on me that I could be the attorney. And she said, ‘You know, Karen, you could be a lawyer.’ And from then on it was just something that I was going to do. I was going to go to law school.”
It wasn’t the last time that her belonging to the female sex would come up in her career, but it was the last time Tidwall let it define her future.
In fact, by the time she began practicing in 1993, Tidwall said it seemed “perfectly natural” to be a woman in the law.
“The question became how many women would stay in private practice and rise to shareholder status and then rise to the management-committee level,” said Tidwall, a shareholder and leader of the trust, estate and fiduciary litigation team at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek in Milwaukee.
It’s a question that led Tidwall to recruit women and minority attorneys to the firm, where she’s also worked on the diversity and inclusion committee and, last year, participated in the firm’s cultural audit.
“My whole life I have had the sense that I, personally, and everyone who lives above the poverty level, especially in the United States, has an obligation to help disadvantaged and disempowered people.”
It’s that sense of duty that has driven her to spread the word among attorneys, especially women and minorities, about changes on the horizon.
“Women, in particular, need to come in with the mindset not only of a lawyer but also a business owner, an entrepreneur,” Tidwall said. “If you really want to make it, you have to be focused in that way, looking at it as building your own business.
“Of course, you have to learn to be a really, really, really good lawyer. But there’s this other piece now. And, maybe, it was always there. But that’s a surprise to some people, and it’s crucial to our success.”
It’s part of what makes Tidwall such a powerful advocate.
“She’s collaborative,” said Phil Halley, a fellow shareholder. And assertive.
“She’s not a flamethrower, but if she has to get into it, she can handle herself,” Halley said.