Asking Jane Duke, “Why law?” is kind of like asking why her eyes are the color they are. They’ve just always been what they were ordained to be.
“People have asked me, ‘Why law?’ before, and I’d like to say that I really don’t know,” she said. “I remember being in second grade and saying, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer.’ There was never any doubt, and there was never any alternative plan. It was like, this is the plan, and this is what I’m going to do. I never even contemplated any other career.”
Duke’s single-mindedness has led her on a path of success few attorneys can match, male or female. After graduating from the University of Arkansas School of Law, she served at the prestigious Wright Lindsey & Jennings LLP in Little Rock before being hired as a federal prosecutor in 2002, a mere six years into her career. Four years later, she was promoted to first assistant U.S. Attorney and in 2007, began a stint as acting U.S. Attorney.
But for all that, she calls her current gig, vice president and associate general counsel for Tyson Foods Law Department, even more intriguing than putting away drug lords and corrupt public servants.
“I always wanted to be a litigator, and I was a litigator. I loved it and thought I could never go in-house because it would be so boring,” she said. “I had lots of opportunities along the way with different clients to go in-house, but I thought I would just sit at my desk all day and respond to outside counsel’s questions to something.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have been more challenged, more engaged, more in the middle of everything here than I could have ever imagined possible. I don’t think that’s just Tyson. I think that’s the case for any in-house lawyer because you never know what’s going to be in your inbox when you wake up in the morning.”
Duke, who’s been with Tyson since 2018, is part of a sea change in corporate America, one that is seeing an influx of women into the highest ranks of in-house law. According to the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, 30 percent of general counsel roles in Fortune 500 companies were held women and about as many in Fortune 501-1000 companies.
And while that’s still well below the number of men in that role, consider the percentage was below 14 percent in 2002 and jumped 3.6 percent just from 2018. And, as the ABA reported, 2018 marked the third consecutive year women outnumbered men in law school, meaning progress will likely advance even further in the future.
Duke said she takes personally the responsibility to help continue that momentum.
“I can remember so many times as a young lawyer going to depositions or court in whatever small town in Arkansas and getting called, ‘Honey.’ And, if I were there with one of my male partners, hearing, ‘Well, you’re sure a lot prettier than Harry over there.’ That was just rampant, and I tried to really take it in stride,” she said. “To be taken seriously in that environment, and not just be the cute little lawyer from Little Rock, you really had to prepare, prepare, prepare and then overprepare on the backside of that.
“At the same time, I like to talk about the notion that you always lift while you climb; the ‘lift’ part of it is that you’ve been there. You’ve walked that path, and you’ve seen opportunity present itself, and you try to create and direct opportunities for people. I had the benefit of some pioneering attorneys out there, and I owe it to the future generations coming up to show them a path. But you’ve got to do that in a way that you have very clear expectations and you can really drive excellence by saying, ‘These are expectations for us. It may not be fair that you have to overprepare, but if you want to be taken seriously, that’s a part of it.’”
Corporate law also demands a different perspective than being in private practice, said Kristi Moody, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Windstream in Little Rock.
“The transition itself is very intriguing,” she said. “You have less control of your time and your schedule, and you have one client. That one client is the company that you work for. In our in-house legal department, we often say informally we have 11,000 clients at any given time. Any of our employees on any given day can have an issue where they need our help. We are on call for 11,000 clients, every day, to help them move whatever issue they have.”
Moody earned her law degree from the William H. Bowen School of Law at UA Little Rock, after which she built a stellar 11-year career with Wright, Lindsey & Jennings. It was a journey that wasn’t without bias against women in the legal field.
“Wright, Lindsey & Jennings was a very progressive firm, and I was definitely not the only woman in the room. They treated us as equals, and our voices were heard,” she said. “Now, when you went out into actual practice in the courtroom and in depositions, yes, I was typically the only woman in the room. I was mistaken for the court reporter. In some of the hinterlands of the state, they frowned upon me as a woman. We still had the directive that you should never wear pants in the courtroom. Just your typical, cliché things, but they were true.”
Facing down those stereotypes meant toughening her skin, sharpening her game and winning, which she did in cases ranging from car accidents to tractor-trailer and nursing home cases by the time she left for Windstream in 2006. It took nearly 12 years to reach “General Counsel” and headlong into her biggest battle to date.
“Absolutely, the most challenging thing in my career and tenure at Windstream was when we were the target of a very aggressive hedge fund, Aurelias,” she said. “That whole situation arose back in late 2017, and then we had a lawsuit with them in 2018. The result of that lawsuit led us to have to file for Chapter 11 restructuring.
“That period of time in my career, which was right on the heels of becoming general counsel, has been challenging, and it’s definitely been something that I have learned greatly from. When I look back on it, I’m not saying that there weren’t things that I wouldn’t have improved upon or done differently, but overall, I think we were spot on. I still think we should have won. I still think that the judge got the decision wrong, and I’ll go to my grave saying that he was just wrong.”
As much as the verdict smarted, the future is bright for the battered but unbowed telecom company. Windstream emerged from bankruptcy Sept. 21, positioned to open an exciting new chapter, Moody said, one in which she is eager to participate.
“We have taken that result and the Chapter 11 and restructuring, and we have turned it into an opportunity to eliminate a significant amount of debt,” she said. “Coming out of this restructuring process, we’re going to be a stronger, better and more nimble company.”
Moody expressed similar optimism for women in the corporate arena, noting her own company has proactively sought diversity across the board, including in the legal department.
“Recently, we started an employee resource group at Windstream, not just within legal, but the company itself. It’s called Women of Windstream, and it’s really helping us focus on women within the company to make sure that if there are openings and promotions, that we have a seat at the table. It also provides mentoring and a place to come and share ideas and get feedback from other women within the industry.
“In our law department, and what I see in working with outside counsel, I see about 50/50 women at this point. I’m fairly pleased with that. I have five direct reports, three of those are men, and two are women. I’m very pleased with that split. This team has been really, really strong and has done a great job leading the company through some pretty difficult and trying times.”