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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    March 13, 2023

    Final Thought
    From Charm School to Law School

    In the 1970s, women made up about 5-10% of law school classes. Now, women are in the majority, representing about 55% of law school classes. Keep using your microphone.

    Katja Kunzke

    I was 10 years old in 1967. For Christmas, my parents sent me to charm school. Sears was offering lessons in charm to girls between 9 and 19 years old. We were given a notebook at our first session for all the notes we would be taking on how to dress, how to host parties, how to apply makeup, how to walk sedately, how to set a table, and how to be charming in general. Graduation would be a fashion show. Some of us would be models, and some would be commentators. I raised my hand and waited politely to be called upon. I said, “I would like to be a model, please.” The response: “You will be a commentator.”

    Katja KunzkeKatja Kunzke, U.W. 1982, is a German immigrant who grew up in southern California. She came to Wisconsin in 1979 to attend the University of Wisconsin Law School. After three years in private practice, she joined Rural Mutual Insurance Co. as a claims attorney. In 1989, she joined Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., a lawyers’ professional liability carrier started by the State Bar of Wisconsin. After managing the claims department (1989-2004), she became president and CEO of WILMIC. She retired in June 2022. She has two amazing daughters and four rambunctious grandchildren, none of whom hesitate to speak their truth and all of whom would have been booted from charm school. Kunzke is vice chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Senior Lawyers Division.

    I raised my hand again, slightly less politely, and said “I really, really want to be a model!” That was not persuasive. On the evening of graduation, we lined up in the tool aisle of the closed Sears store. A runway had been set up with chairs for guests on each side.

    There was a microphone for the commentators. We were told to describe the dress the model was wearing and how it looked on her. My next-door neighbor April was in my class. She and I had a rocky friendship before this evening. April had made an unfortunate fashion choice and wore a thick purple polyester dress that did not enhance her appearance. I had the microphone and an audience. “Here comes April wearing a puffy purple dress that makes her look like furniture. And she’s pretty mean, too.” To no one’s surprise, the microphone was removed from my hands, and I was escorted out of the store. My notebook was confiscated. I did not receive my graduation certificate.

    What did I learn from charm school? I learned that girls in 1967 were expected to be quiet, compliant, and good at housework. I learned that our natural looks needed enhancement from makeup and the “right” clothing. I learned that my wishes were unimportant. I learned that I absolutely love having a microphone and an audience. I learned that not all truths need to be spoken out loud. But the biggest lesson of all was that I do have a voice and it’s okay if people don’t agree with me.

    Ten years later, I decided to go to law school. Lawyers are the voices for people and businesses and institutions and government when disagreements occur and resolutions need to be found. In law school, my appearance or knowledge of where the little fork sits on the dinner table didn’t matter. What mattered was what I said and how I said it and how persuasive I could be. Law school was the perfect antidote to charm school. Being a lawyer is having a microphone and an audience.

    Would I change anything if I could? No. Charm school taught me who I did not want to be and law school taught me who I could be, a lawyer who found ways and places to speak her truth by advocating for people and institutions I care about. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and the people with whom I’ve worked. I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished.

    The biggest lesson of all was that I do have a voice and it’s okay if people don’t agree with me.

    » Cite this article: 96 Wis. Law. 56 (March 2023).

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