The Virginia Mister Scholarship

  • Virginia Mister, Class of 1937
    Virginia Mister, Class of 1937  Mister, the first woman to earn a law degree at William & Mary, later recalled her law school experience: "I was a bit awed by being the only woman. But Dean [Theodore] Cox was so charming and gracious, I soon forgot about being awed and frightened. There was no discrimination from faculty or students."  
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Honoring William & Mary Law School’s First Female Graduate and Encouraging New Leaders

This article originally appeared in the 2012-2013 Annual Report of William & Mary Law School.

For Elizabeth Besio Hardin, it was love at first sight. “I visited William & Mary for the first time on a college tour with my older sister when I was only 10 years old,” Hardin says. “It was one of those signature spring days in the ‘burg, and the campus looked like such a wonderful place with students hanging out in the Sunken Garden, playing Frisbee; I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

A northern Virginia native, Hardin made her dream come true and earned her undergraduate degree in English and geology from William & Mary in 1985.

After graduation, she moved to the D.C. area and worked as a technical writer, crafting user manuals for a U.S. Marine Corps armored personnel mover. She was also an administrative clerk at the law firm of Duncan, Allen & Mitchell.

“I was exposed to a lot of different things in both jobs,” Hardin says. “I knew I had to go to graduate school to have a professional career. Law school offered a broad enough education to give me lots of options. I saw it as an investment in my future.”

Her search for an excellent and small-sized school that offered a good value for the tuition brought her back to William & Mary

“My first year of law school was unexpectedly idyllic,” she says. “It was challenging and interesting, yes, but there was a nice mix of smart people to engage with. William & Mary felt like home, really comfortable and welcoming.”

After earning her law degree, the career services office helped her secure a position focusing on capital markets law at Hunton & Williams in Richmond. Four years later, she moved to New York City to continue in that specialty at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. In 1997, Hardin became a partner at the firm, where she is a member of the Alternative Investments Practice.“

Even after 20 years in New York City, I still consider myself a Virginian,” she says. Steadfast in her devotion to her alma mater, she has served three terms as a trustee of The Marshall-Wythe School of Law Foundation, has acted as an advisor to the William & Mary Business Law Review, spoke at the fall 2012 Women in BigLaw Conference, and served regularly on Law School reunion committees. She has enthusiastically recruited students from the Law School to join Milbank, and that particular connection has remained one that she is excited to continue very actively.

Immediately following the Women in BigLaw Conference, Anna Engh ’89 spearheaded efforts to create the Virginia Mister Scholarship in honor of the Law School’s first female graduate. Almost two dozen alumnae joined Hardin to endow it in honor of Mister’s legacy.

Mister, like Hardin, earned undergraduate and law degrees at the College. The only female law student in the Class of 1937, Mister was among the first women in Virginia to pass the bar. Like most female attorneys at that time, she found many firms resistant to hiring women to practice law. She began her legal career as a secretary at a Norfolk law firm (and led a broad array of civic efforts in the city during World War II). Mister moved to New York City after the war, beginning a 25-year career at the newly established United Nations, where she served as head of the Legal, Political and Security Council Affairs Library.

“Virginia Mister’s story is emblematic of the challenges women still face today,” says Hardin, the mother of two daughters. “It is difficult to succeed as a woman in a big law firm, and it’s time for more women to take leadership positions. The Virginia Mister Scholarship will foster new leaders.”

“We’ve seen some notable and spectacular success stories for women in law, but not the number of women in senior roles, particularly in globally pre-eminent law firms, we should be seeing by now,” she says. “I hope this scholarship enables more women to have an impact.”

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About William & Mary Law School

Legal education in a university setting began at William & Mary in 1779. Now in its third century, America's first law school continues its historic mission of educating citizen lawyers who are prepared both to lead and to serve.