Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future

Breaking the Glass Ceiling at ACTEC


In honor of Women’s History Month, ACTEC looks at its history of inclusion and diversity by interviewing some of the earliest female leaders of the College. The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel began in 1949, but it took another 40 years for the first woman to become president. This video looks inward to understand better how an established organization such as ACTEC has grown and changed to become more inclusive, diverse and aware.

ACTEC Fellow Cynthia Lamar-Hart, chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Committee, moderates a discussion between some of the women who broke the glass ceiling at ACTEC. ACTEC Fellow Carlyn S. McCaffrey was the second female president of the College; ACTEC Fellow Rhonda H. Brink was the first female elected from Texas; and current ACTEC President Ann B. Burns share their experiences and offer recommendations for women to excel in a professional organization. 




Cynthia Lamar-Hart:  Hello. My name is Cynthia Lamar-Hart, and I have the honor of chairing the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Committee for the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, or ACTEC. In honor of Women’s History Month, today’s topic is “Breaking the Glass Ceiling at ACTEC.” In recent years, ACTEC has placed particular emphasis on its efforts to create a welcoming and inclusive College. These efforts include: having created a diversity task force in 2013, which is now the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Committee; having made public statements condemning racism and anti-Asian violence; and having created a code of conduct and modified ACTEC’s bylaws to codify these diversity practices.

As Fellows, we celebrate this progress in the College, and we acknowledge that there is still work to be done. During this Women’s History Month, we are focusing in particular on the history, successes, and continuing challenges facing women in our profession and in the College.

ACTEC was founded in 1949. In its over 70-year history, ACTEC has had nine female presidents, the first of whom, the late Geraldine Hemmerling, was elected president for the 1989-1990 term. We’re very fortunate to have with us today three outstanding women Fellows of the College to share with us their experiences as pioneering female leaders, and their advice to today’s aspiring leaders.

First will be Carlyn McCaffrey, a partner in the firm of McDermott Will & Emery, who serves as co-head of the private client practice in the firm’s New York office. Carlyn was elected the second female president of ACTEC in 2002. Next will be Rhonda Brink, a founding partner in the firm of Brink & Bennett in Austin, Texas. In 1985, Rhonda was among the earliest women elected to ACTEC and was the very first woman elected from the state of Texas. Also joining us will be ACTEC’s current president, Ann Burns, who was elected as ACTEC’s ninth female president in 2021. Ann is a partner in Lathrop GPM and practices in the firm’s Minneapolis office.

And we’ll begin first with Carlyn McCaffrey. Carlyn, thank you for joining us today. As noted in the introductions, you were elected 48th president of ACTEC in 2002, and you were only the second woman to be president of ACTEC in its 50-year history. What was your path to leadership in the College?

Path to Leadership at ACTEC

Carlyn McCaffrey:  Well, thank you for inviting me to be here this afternoon. I think my path to leadership was very similar to many Fellows who become active. I have a passion for the tax law. I love figuring out how it works, how it applies to particular taxpayer situations, and I wanted to work fairly for taxpayers as well as the government.

So, ACTEC offers a great platform for learning, for contributing to the learning, and for playing a role in how the law shapes up for the future. I took advantage of all it has to offer by becoming active in committee work, working on committee projects, including those that were actually designed to encourage the Treasury to change regulations, which was a particular thrill, and speaking at CLE programs.

So, I think the active role I took from the very beginning was what led to my promotion.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart:  Carlyn, did you have a mentor or mentors within ACTEC, and if so, how did that mentorship contribute to your path to leadership?

Carlyn McCaffrey:  Well, I don’t think I had any particular single mentor, although there were many senior members of ACTEC, including Geraldine, who were helpful to me throughout my early years at ACTEC. Including a few who appreciated my ability to quickly type reports up at the end of the committee meeting to put into the comments that we were going to submit.

But for the most part, I think they respected my substantive contributions as well as my typing ability and applauded my participation.

Of more importance than a mentor was my relationship with a group of younger members, most of whom were women. We shared a common bond of enthusiasm for the tax law, for fellowship, and for the gradual elimination of various forms of micro-inequities built into the ACTEC social structure that we faced in the early years of ACTEC.

And I have to say, I think a lot of that has changed. Maybe a lot is still with us. But when you look at what’s happened to the presidency, you’ll see a real change because while there were very few women presidents at the beginning, starting with my year, in 2002-2003, there have been eight female presidents out of 20, which is 20%, which is a greater portion of presidents than we have women as a portion of members. So, I think we’re moving in the right direction.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart:  What challenges did you face as president of ACTEC, and do you think that any of those challenges were exacerbated by the fact that you are a woman?

Challenges as the Second Female President of ACTEC

Carlyn McCaffrey:  I don’t think anything was exacerbated at that point by the fact that I was a woman. I was mostly facing financial pressures. The concern was that participating in ACTEC was growing increasingly expensive because the meetings were very expensive, and so we had to charge a lot for people to come. And the solution that I helped work on was in the first place to create a sponsorship committee, which led to the first sponsored activity, my annual meeting in 2003.

And I think that looking back, was probably the right thing to do. It certainly blossomed and has become a very important financial contribution to the College, which in a way, I suppose, makes it more accessible to women as well as men who might not otherwise have had the financial ability to participate.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart:  What advice would you give to young Fellows today, and particularly to female Fellows, who aspire to be active in the College?

Advice to New Fellows

Carlyn McCaffrey:  I think it’s very easy to be active in the College because committee leaders are eager to have people participate. And so, if you’re willing to become active, you want to become active, then go to the meetings. Go to the national meetings, go to all the committee meetings, and volunteer, and your services will be welcomed, and that leads to an active role in the College.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart:  Thank you, Carlyn. We’ll turn now to Rhonda Brink. Rhonda, thank you for being with us today. As noted in the introductions, you were among the first female Fellows elected to ACTEC when you were elected in 1985. In 1989, there were only 83 Fellows of ACTEC, which was a mere 3.2% of all Fellows. Take us back to 1985 when you were elected as one of the very first female Fellows. What were your experiences like at the national meetings, and did you face any challenges in getting involved?

Experience as a Female Fellow in the 1980s

Rhonda Brink: First, let me thank you as well for including me in this. I don’t believe that we had the term “micro inequities” in our vocabulary in 1985, but they certainly existed, particularly on the social side of these meetings. It’s a little sad to report that one of my memories of the first meeting I attended in Orlando, Florida, was feeling like my golf handicap was the most important information on the registration application rather than what I had done in the law.

I got really tired of being included in groups of men and women where it was assumed that my husband was the tax lawyer and I was the spouse, to the point of which I finally intentionally started introducing myself in those groups back in 1985 as the tax lawyer Fellow, and my husband as the spouse.

Well, that’s a long time ago, but it shows how much has changed because of the effort that the organization makes now to make certain that everyone’s status is well known and they’re included.

For example, just the name-tagging situation that didn’t exist then, and it was suggested to be changed way back when, where now Fellows are distinguished from their spouses, and they’re distinguished by how long they’ve been members, whether or not this is their first meeting, all of which gives an opportunity to be much more inclusive.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart: Rhonda, as we noted earlier, you were the first female Fellow elected from the state of Texas. What were your experiences like at the state level in those early years when you were the only female Fellow involved?

Rhonda Brink: Well, again, I hate to say not that inclusive. Other than the induction meeting and a once-a-year dinner, there was not a whole lot to participate in on the state level. And as a new member with a bad experience at my first national meeting, I will truthfully report much of my professional energy went towards other organizations, speaking, for example with ALI-ABA at Heckerling Institute.

But in those forums, being introduced to ACTEC member after ACTEC member who then helped me develop my participation in ACTEC, which led to several national speaking engagements. More importantly, in the late 1990s early 2000s, being recruited by some of the new females – and the increasing number of female- Fellows to get back on the meeting bandwagon.

And indeed, I started going regularly as a result of that encouragement from not only ACTEC Fellows that I met at other professional organizations but our very active state chairs as well, one of whom, Marjorie Stephens, was actually my biggest cheerleader about getting back and going to the meetings.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart:  Did you have a mentor or mentors within ACTEC, and if so, what would you say to the current leadership and more senior Fellows at the College about the importance of mentorship and sponsorship to the success of young Fellows?

Rhonda Brink:  Again, due largely to the passing of years, I don’t recall ACTEC Fellows being my mentor in the early days of ACTEC membership as much as I just remember the people who were my mentors who happened to be ACTEC Fellows, no matter where I ran across them. People like L. Henry Gissel Jr, Charles W. Giraud III, and J. Chrys Dougherty. All of them helped me develop my early career and speaking opportunities in particular.

It was more or less a gap that got filled as there became more state activity, particularly having annual and irregular meetings, which we carry on now even with a monthly Zoom luncheon that we invite people other than from our local community.

And more than anything, I think I felt like I was encouraged, I was recognized, I was listened to by all Fellows with whom I came in contact rather than it being a particular mentor situation. But I will admit that I feel like I have mentored as many Fellows, particularly women, as I was mentored myself, by seeking out young – particularly women – and helping give advice from big firm to solo, from solo to boutique, from boutique to planning a succession to ultimate retirement. I think my relationship with my younger female Fellows in the state of Texas and beyond is one of the strongest memories of my participation all these years.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart:  And finally, what advice would you give to young Fellows today, and particularly female Fellows, who aspire to become active in the College?

Advice to Female Fellows Regarding the College

Rhonda Brink: Remembering that there is a 10-year practice requirement, the first thing I would say is become active at your state bar professional level, whatever committee or whatever group that might be called, because you’ll want to get a lot of exposure in that first 10 years. Secondly, keep perfect records of everything you write professionally and every speech that you do. Third would be to attend events that may be sponsored by ACTEC and state law meetings. We in Texas, for example, at most of our CLEs will have a breakfast meeting devoted to what it means to become an ACTEC Fellow and how to go about it.

Next, I would say find a good friend in the board who you know to be an ACTEC member, and perhaps study with that person or just get to know that person. And lastly, go, go, go to committee meetings. It’s been said before, but there is nothing like being able to be heard and answered in a committee meeting, whether you’re a member of that committee or not, when you are talking with the smartest minds in the United States in law.

I love the fact that we have virtual meetings. They’re easy to attend. The content is perfect. But it will never supplant the opportunity to be in person with a group of people like the College of Trust and Estate Counsel. They’re good folk, and the camaraderie is very important.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart:  Thank you so much, Rhonda. And now we’ll turn to Ann Burns. Ann, we’re especially pleased to say during this Women’s History Month celebration that you currently serve as the ninth woman president of ACTEC. During your tenure as president, among your many successful initiatives, you have placed particular emphasis on the College’s continuing commitment to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment, and we’re all the beneficiaries of your leadership. You were elected a Fellow in 1995. How have things changed for women in ACTEC since that time?

ACTEC – Present Day

Ann Burns: Well, first, I would say that Carlyn and Rhonda are very humble people because you can see how much things have changed just by listening to them. They really paved the way for people like myself and others because by the time I came into ACTEC and by the time I attended my first national meeting, things had changed a lot, especially for woman.

I will never forget the first meeting that I went to, which was in – it was Carlyn’s meeting in Puerto Rico, I believe, and I walked into that big ballroom for dinner, looking mystified. I didn’t know where the bar was and I had no idea who I was going to sit with. And a senior ACTEC Fellow wandered on over to me, I’ll never forget him, it was Al Secor. And he said, “I’m Al Secor from Tennessee.” And I introduced myself, and he said, “And you’re with us tonight.”

So, I sat at the table with them, and I met a bunch of people from Tennessee, and I felt immediately included in the organization and all that it had to offer.

There were people all along the way. I feel like I’ve followed Steve Akers in his footsteps throughout ACTEC. He was the one that gave me opportunities in the Business Planning Committee that I was a member of, to speak and to write and to work on special projects, and eventually recommended me for Vice Chair, and then I became Chair of Business Planning. And then I followed him as President of ACTEC.

So, it was, you know, Ron Aucutt and Carlyn McCaffrey and Karen Moore and Kathy Sherby and so many others that really helped me along the way. And I think that we formalized a lot of the inclusivity endeavors that were a little more informal when I first started. The blue dots and the red dots to indicate on your nametag that you’re either attending your first national meeting or you’ve been an AFTEC Fellow for fewer than five years makes it much easier for people to seek you out and welcome you in.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart: Thank you, Ann. And what next steps should ACTEC take to diversify, increase the number of women in ACTEC, and in particular, the number of women in leadership roles?

ACTEC – Looking Foward

Ann Burns: And this will be our biggest challenge because our profession is challenged as well. I think even as early as 1978, when I started law school, my law school class had 50% women in it. But we don’t see that reflected in partnership roles in law firms, we don’t see that in a lot of other organizations.

Happily, ACTEC, as Carlyn mentioned, has made great, great progress. But we still are very aware of the fact that it’s difficult for a lot of people to become as active in ACTEC as they would like to be. It’s time-consuming. Sometimes it involves travel. Whether you become involved at the state level or the regional level or the national level, there are lots of opportunities.

And I think one of the things we need to do is keep doing outreach like this, like our website, like other programs that we do, to remind people that just because you don’t feel that you can attend three national meetings a year in different locations throughout the country for whatever reason, you can do something and you can become involved in ACTEC at whatever level works for you.

And I think we need to do a little bit better job of helping people find those things that work for them so that they can become active in ACTEC. And then over the years, if you want to increase your activities with ACTEC, that’s available too, and we welcome it.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart: Thank you. And what advice would you give to young Fellows today, and particularly to female Fellows, who aspire to be active in the College?

Ann Burns: So, I think this is a continuation of that discussion, which is, you know, I think back to the early years for me. I was a young partner at a big law firm, I was building a practice, I was trying to do marketing. Most people in ACTEC are also very involved in their communities, they’re on boards, they might be very charitably involved. I had two young kids, a lot of people do have families or other family obligations. And so, it’s difficult to squeeze in one more thing.

I will say a couple of things. One is, as I said earlier, do whatever it is that resonates with you. One of the wonderful things you’ll find at ACTEC is there’s a lot going on. You don’t have to be involved in all of it. You can do parts of it.

One small example is that when I was younger and trying to figure out how to attend national meetings while not being away from my family for too long, because I wasn’t going to cart the kids along with me, I could literally – I would take the program for the meeting, decide which committee meetings I wanted to attend, and arrange my travel schedule around them. And sometimes that meant I wasn’t there for the welcome dinner, or I couldn’t stay for the farewell dinner. Or I sometimes didn’t even do the continuing legal education programs.

But I’d be there for the committee meetings because that is where a lot of the work at ACTEC happens, and that’s where a lot of the substantive knowledge comes from.

So, occasionally I’d fly in on a Thursday morning, attend meetings all day, attend meetings on Friday, and be back home on Friday night. And that’s okay. And if you can come for five days and hang out and go to the cocktail parties and the receptions, that’s wonderful too. But if you can’t, it’s all okay, and we want you here whether, as I said, at the state level, the regional level, working with the institutes, or at the national level. You’re welcome to come and do it your way because we’re going to be there in the future, and if you have more time in the future, we’ll take that, too.

Cynthia Lamar-Hart: Thank you so much, Ann. On behalf of the DEI committee and all Fellows of the College, I want to say a word of thanks to these three women who stepped forward to break the glass ceiling at ACTEC and who have served as role models and mentors to so many who aspire to follow in their footsteps. Women now have leadership roles in organizations such as ACTEC, but there is still work to be done. Let’s all commit to look for opportunities to identify, encourage, and promote the women within our spheres of influence.

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Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future

ACTEC’s diversity, equity, and inclusivity video series analyzes issues surrounding racism, sexism, and discrimination in all its forms to combat inequality.