When Louise Michaux Gonzales decided to run for president of the Maryland State Bar Association, the fact that she was woman didn't seem terribly important to her.
"I was not concerned that being a woman would be a handicap, or that it would give me any advantage," Ms. Gonzales says. "It was not until after I had won that I realized that my being a woman was the focus, both for bar association members and the public."
Ms. Gonzales, 41, became the first woman president of the 15,000-member group earlier this month, drawing attention as one of only a handful of women around the country who have been chosen to lead state bar associations.
Running against her was Charlie Dorsey, executive director of Legal Aid Bureau. After the election, he turned quickly from an opponent to a supporter. "She's an excellent person, an excellent leader who delegates well," he says. "I am delighted that she is the new president."
Though Ms. Gonzales considers herself a feminist -- of sorts -- and hopes to use her position to help advance minorities and females in the profession, her priorities are much broader.
"There are enormous changes taking place in the legal system right now," she explains, carefully picking her words. "The public is demanding those changes. The public doesn't feel it's getting what it wants from the legal profession, which is fairness and justice at a reasonable cost. We can't sit on our haunches and do nothing but defend the status quo."
The problems she outlines are far-reaching and will strike an all-too-familiar chord with many who have had legal dealings.
"It takes too long, it costs too much," Ms. Gonzales says of the system. "And sometimes the results have little relation to the goals."
Surrounded by the various shades of gray that dominate the decor in her downtown law office, Ms. Gonzales laughs at the suggestion that attacking such problems might be somewhat daunting, especially within a one-year term.
She laughs, then says she'll try anyway.
"The first thing you have to do is create an awareness among lawyers of the situation," she says, explaining her plan of attack. "You have to stimulate discussion, spark some innovation. The first thing you do is talk about it."
But, she adds, "lawyers can't just talk to lawyers. We want to find out from other people what they see wrong with the system. We have to talk to our clients, talk to legislators and, heaven forbid, even the press."
Seymour Stern, Ms. Gonzales' predecessor as bar association president, agrees with her assessment of the problems the group faces and the way to attack them. He also thinks that she is just the person for the job.
"She has the pulse of the vast majority of lawyers today," he says. "Because of that I think she will start to find ways to solve the problems our profession is faced with."
Ms. Gonzales, a University of Maryland law school graduate, grew up in various parts of the country, as the daughter of a Marine Corps officer. Both her parents were from Maryland and, since attending the University of Maryland College Park, she has made the state her home.
She traces her interest in the state bar association to 1980 when she and her husband Robert Gonzales -- a corporate lawyer and president-elect of the Baltimore City Bar Association -- attended the group's mid-year meeting in Jamaica, looking for a vacation as much as a professional meeting.
Next thing she knew she was chairman of the membership committee, then chairman of the young lawyers' section, on the association's board of governors and heading for higher office.
This was a time, also, of a change in direction for her career. She had worked for four years at the law firm of Blades and Rosenfeld, specializing in estate planning. By 1980 she was restless, looking for more variety in her work. She and Bill Hylton, a colleague in the firm, struck out and set up their own law firm.
"I liked the idea of controlling my own destiny -- for better or worse," she says of her decision to leave the security of an established firm.
Because of her partner's contacts,it looked like many of the new firm's clients would be in the construction business -- but "what happened to construction in 1980 wasn't pretty," Ms. Gonzales recalls with a grimace. "A lot of clients went out of business or went on hold. There were some pretty lean years."
But she and her partner hung on, broadened their clientele, did a lot of networking to expand business and things started turning around. The firm now employs six lawyers and a support staff of 15, pursuing what Ms. Gonzales describes as an "odd combination of general civil practice with a lot of emphasis on business-related litigation."
But business in the past year has mirrored the early '80s and the recession is something that Ms. Gonzales thinks the bar association could help lawyers with. "The state bar should provide better services to solo practitioners," she says. "About half our membership is solo or small firms, and they could use some help adjusting to practice in the '90s."
But she also fears a problem because of too many lawyers looking for work. "Even after the recession, we cannot absorb all the folks coming out of law schools," she warns. "The demand is just not there."
Not there, she adds, despite the frequent attempt by people to seek in the courts what she sees as inappropriate solutions to problems. The problem, she says, is not that so many more lawsuits are being filed these days -- statistics show only a slight increase over past years -- but that "there are some bad lawsuits. The legal system is not the answer for everything. People think whatever happens, there's a legal remedy, but that's just giving up personal responsibility."
As an example in her own field of estate planning, she cites a dispute about offspring and their inheritance. "It's an emotional time, and emotions and assets don't always go together. What they're really fighting about is not who gets the silver bowl, but Mama always loved you more. And they'll end up saying, 'Sue 'em.' "
Her job, she says, and the job of any responsible lawyer, "is to sit the people down, tell them, this is not reasonable, it is not cost-effective and it won't get you what you really want."
When she's not practicing law or guiding the bar association, Ms. Gonzales -- who has no children and lives with her husband in Cold Spring Newtown -- likes to relax by mowing the lawn. She and her husband share a weekend retreat on the Choptank River with another family. "It's so peaceful and quiet," she says. "That's as close as I get to meditation."