Former South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Judith Meierhenry addressed a crowd of Women in Philanthropy members at their event at the University of South Dakota campus on September 11.
Meierhenry represented the Knudson School of Law Women Leaders Speaker Series, an initiative in which she took part last year and Women In Philanthropy has elected to fund this year.
“The Knudson School Of Law has a tradition of excellence, service and leadership,” said Abuk Jiel, director of Development for USD Women in Philanthropy. “This is apparent when you consider the many alumnae who have changed the trajectory of their community by putting their trades into action. By inviting alumnae back to campus and connecting them with law students, USD’s future lawyer leaders are provided with an invaluable opportunity to learn from those who blaze the trail before them.”
Meierhenry is a three-time graduate of USD.
According to the bio shared by Jiel, Meierhenry is the first woman in South Dakota’s history to join the South Dakota Supreme Court when she was appointed as a justice in 2002.
She served as a panelist in the law school speaker series from the past year and showed quite a passion for guiding the next generation of women lawyers towards success.
“I would say none of us ever get to where we want to be alone and I think it’s so important that we recognize that,” Meierhenry said. “I think when you’re starting out you kind of think you’re all by yourself and I think the importance of this program is that it introduces students who are entering the profession to the concept that you are not alone.”
Whether from another lawyer, judge, family member or friend, she stressed the importance of novices seeking mentors and those with experience providing the needed mentorship.
“Somebody’s out there that you can turn to that will give you advice, will give you encouragement, will give you this support…,” Meierhenry said. “I think that at least speaking from the group that was on my panel, that’s where we want to be.
“We want to be there for you,” she said. “If there’s anything we can do to help, even if it's just a telephone call to give you advice on something, I think that that is really what I see as the advantage of it.”
Each speaker series is focused on a category of either Women of Excellence, Women of Service or Women of Leadership, designed to set the students up for success when mixed with mentorship.
“Those three: excellence, service and leadership, those are things that I already would think that the law students that enter law school already have. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have gotten into law school,” Meierhenry said. “I think the importance of the program that I was part of is that the students that were selected to be in this program were then able to communicate with women who have been out and how those traits or disciplines or whatever you want to call them translate into real life.”
Meierhenry herself relied heavily on mentorship, being one of the pioneering women in South Dakota law.
“You know I’m so old that when I went to law school the women in law couldn't even fill a table that big; there just weren’t very many of us,” Meierhenry said. “So … we looked for mentorship from men, from friends, from each other and it’s very important.”
She said her mentorship of USD students didn’t start at the law school but with the women’s basketball team members through a different program dubbed “Elevate.”
“I was so impressed with these young women and the questions they had, the concerns they had...Coach P (Plitzuweit) set up a lot of these things and there were a lot of different speakers that came and talked to them on a variety of things,” Meierhenry said. “I was so excited about it that when President Gestring decided to lead the charge on getting this into a program more campus wide and covering and touching more people I was one of the first to say ‘yes.’”
USD President Sheila Gestring also spoke at the event, echoing the aim of these programs is to support the students by establishing connections with professionals such as Meierhenry.
“Our university and campus partners are emphasizing career development and networking to help our students find meaningful employment after graduation,” Gestring said. “These connections with individuals and leaders like all of you further develop skills and expertise needed to thrive in their careers. They offer mentorship and advice and help these young professionals navigate complex situations.”
Meierhenry said she has gained as much from participating in the program as the students have.
“This is a great program,” Meierhenry said. “Of course, law school is a love of mine and so being able to be part of that was very important to me...I think the advantage for all of you to be part of this is because we do feel what we learned here and what we have taken with us as we get into our lives and our profession.
“We wouldn’t be where we were without USD and without the law school, particularly for myself, and you feel that need to give back,” she said, “and when you give back you get almost more in return because I think intergenerational is important.”
Having grandchildren attending USD, Meierhenry said she feels she has an advantage in understanding what the younger generation is facing, an understanding which has been enhanced by her involvement in programs such as the speaker series.
“I think it’s so important for us to understand what this next generation is facing that maybe we didn’t face, but that’s also true the other way,” she said. “It’s like, ok, you had it different in your generation, you are facing different things.
“But the coping and how you deal with it and how you get through it -- we can help each other figure that out,” Meierhenry said. “To me, it’s such a thrill to see the leadership, the excellence, the service that is in this next generation and it gives me a lot of hope.”