Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Rising to a management position at Legal Aid

Gerber describes her role working for Legal Aid in North Carolina for fifteen years, beginning in the late 1970s. In particular, Gerber focuses on how she became the organizations "managing attorney" in 1980 and how she worked to assuage tensions associated with race and gender in the workplace. In addition, she emphasizes that she worked hard to ensure that hiring practices were democratic.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
How did Legal Aid grow while you were, over the 15 years that you were…
ELLEN W. GERBER:
Our office or as an institution?
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
Both.
ELLEN W. GERBER:
Well, let me start with our office. In 1980 I became the managing attorney. Now, at that time we hadn't had one. We had somebody who was a litigation coordinator and he had not done that good of a job because of his personality; he left. And then nobody wanted any leader, any boss to supervise their case. Everybody was doing their cases, walking around and saying give me some help here or there to their colleagues, but there was no effective system for supervising.
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
Did your colleagues come to you and appoint you, or did see a need and fill it?
ELLEN W. GERBER:
Well, what happened is we had a fellow there who was going to take another job, and he was made the managing attorney briefly, sort of a half-time position. And he held it for about a half a year or so, and then he left anyway, a year maybe. And he was a black fellow and at that time we had a lot of racial tension in the office and he was wonderful at resolving that and getting us all together; again you're talking about the end of the '70s and there were a lot of issues going on. And then so the office said, well we want to have a managing attorney; we like that, that worked well and we want to have one. And people urged me to apply. And we had an affirmative action plan that required the office to consider women or minority applicants internally, and if they took one, fine. If not, then they had to advertise the position, which meant that males or white males could not apply for the position internally. So I was urged by my colleagues to apply. My first instinct was no. I don't want to, I don't want to get it this way. If I get it I want to … and I really wasn't ready for that. I had only been active eight years and I was still learning. But then I realized that that denigrated the notion of affirmative action, I mean, which I believed in. Then you're saying that the people who get jobs under that aren't worthy of them. So that didn't square with my philosophy either, so I applied and I did get the job.
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
As manager
ELLEN W. GERBER:
As manager. And so at first my colleagues were people who were my colleagues. So it was a very soft approach. And as they left and I helped to hire people - our office hired people very democratically, and new attorneys would come in and I took on the role of supervisor. And within a few years I had developed a very strong supervision system in the office. And over the next decade I developed a system where I supervised every case. And I mean by that that every pleading that left that office had crossed my desk — I mean every pleading. That includes sometimes a 20-page; a 20-page package of discovery, interrogatories, request to admit, request to produce. It includes all briefs. It includes all complaints and answers, counterclaims, case strategizing. I worked on every case in that office; I supervised them. And I feel it was successful because after a while I never had to urge people to come to me. Even to this day I've retired and I went to the office and they said, "Oh, you're here, could you sit down with me and strategize on this case?"