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The Riveter

Lisa Sparks opens doors to the law for underprivileged girls

Published in 2017 Maryland Super Lawyers — January 2017

It was only a decade ago that Lisa Sparks, a first-generation high school graduate who grew up in a Baltimore steel mill neighborhood, was navigating her way through college and law school.

She not only got the J.D., but did so at age 22, and summa cum laude. 

“I was voted most likely to be the first woman president in my fourth-grade class,” Sparks says. “I never really got the politics bug, but talked about being a lawyer off and on since elementary school.”

Now a construction lawyer at Wright, Constable & Skeen in Baltimore, Sparks helps high school girls in challenging circumstances reach their own goals through a pro bono program dubbed “Rosie the Lawyer.” The program’s name is a nod to Rosie the Riveter, star of the iconic World World II-era government campaign aimed at drawing women to the work field. 

“[Honoring Rosie] was derived from the idea that there are women here at our firm working not only as successful attorneys, but in industries where women do not dominate,” Sparks says. “Some years, we’ve given the girls pink bandanas to tie around [their heads] like Rosie the Riveter hats. We have this big tin sign with Rosie the Riveter on it, and I always start with a conversation about [her.]” 

Sparks and a former marketing manager at her firm hatched the idea. “[She] said, ‘There are women here doing really cool stuff that women don’t normally do, particularly in the construction industry,’” Sparks recalls. “‘There’s got to be a way that we can reach out to young women and expose them to it.’” 

Her firm was already involved in the CollegeBound Foundation, which offers Baltimore high school kids SAT prep courses, takes them on college tours and helps them with college applications. CollegeBound was enthusiastic about the idea of partnering with Rosie the Lawyer. They currently send about 20 girls each year to the Rosie program, where they are introduced not only to the legal arena but also to the idea of becoming a professional. 

After talking about the program’s iconic namesake, Sparks discusses the history of women lawyers in Maryland. She also explains what a lawyer does all day—as opposed to what the kids might have seen on TV. 

“This past year, we spent a lot of time talking about the role of attorneys for advocacy and change following the Freddie Gray riots,” Sparks says. “We were talking about the opportunity to effect change at a systemic level as an attorney versus the rioting that happened and how to use those energies in a more positive way.”

Sparks tries to cover a lot of ground, including etiquette. “We’ll ask them to go around and shake hands and introduce themselves and make eye contact,” she says, noting, “If you’re in the business world, you need a proper firm handshake—whether you’re a man or a woman. But that’s just not something that they’re going to [learn] elsewhere.”

The girls also head to the courthouse to visit a courtroom and meet a judge. In addition to Sparks and others at her firm, two judges—Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Audrey J.S. Carrion and Baltimore City District Court Judge Diana A.E. Smith—volunteer with the program. Also involved is attorney Alicia Wilson, who recently became in-house counsel for a redevelopment company.

Most of the girls are sophomores and juniors. “At age 15, 16, this is just about exposure. If you follow in my footsteps and 10 or 15 years from now you’re a member of the bar and I’m on committees with you, that’s awesome,” Sparks says. “But if you don’t want to be a lawyer right now, I’m OK with that.”

For Sparks, graduation from law school led to a clerkship with Judge Deborah Eyler on the Court of Special Appeals, and from there she went to Whiteford, Taylor & Preston. As for how she ended up in construction and surety law?

“It was 2008. The [job] market was horrible. I had done an informational interview at Whiteford, and they had an unexpected opening a few months later and they called me back to interview with that group,” she says. “I admittedly had to go look up what ‘surety’ was in the law library. … I had no idea. 

“It turned out to be a really great fit for me. …  [I’m from] a very blue-collar environment, and even most of the business owners in construction started as tradesmen and worked their way up. I have an understanding of the blue-collar industry and, frankly, it’s a lot of fun. When I go out to meet with clients, I get to wear jeans and boots and a hard hat. … I get to learn about every project.”

Now she’s passing on that excitement to the next generation.

“This may be, for one of these young ladies, what opens up the door for them to go to law school to become an attorney, or to choose some other profession and forge their way all the way, rather than just stopping at high school or just stopping at college.

“Most of them are in the same position I was in.”