NUSL Pathways Deborah Marshall
Her Goal:

To develop a career in law that would allow me to make a meaningful contribution.

Find out how she
achieved it.
Northeastern University School of Law

Ask the NUSL Expert

A monthly question-and-answer series brought to you by Northeastern University School of Law and the Women in the Law Programs.



Deborah Bovarnick Mastin ’75, Assistant Miami-Dade County Attorney, Miami, Florida
Deborah's biography

Except for my years at Northeastern University School of Law, my professional career has been spent as a member of an underrepresented demographic group.  I've gotten so used to it, it seems normal.  While earning a bachelor of science degree from the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, I was one of fewer than 75 women in my class of more than 1,000 students.  In my first job after law school, as a Legal Services staff attorney, women constituted a tiny fraction of the professional staff.  In my second legal job, I became the first and sole woman associate at a local boutique law firm that litigated construction defect cases.

Then I joined the office of the Miami-Dade County Attorney, where for 32 years I have been responsible for the legal issues associated with the design and construction of county capital facilities. My portfolio has included an office tower, museums, performing arts centers, police and fire stations, jails, stadiums, libraries, rapid transit facilities and the $6 billion expansion of Miami International Airport. I handle transactional work, alternate dispute resolution and litigation; the office uses no outside counsel.  I am a "dirt lawyer," dealing with excavation, concrete and steel. I keep a hard hat, jeans and boots in my car trunk.  Being a member of the County Attorney's staff has enabled me to practice construction law at a highly sophisticated level, while  mostly or almost balancing the needs of my family. 

Along the way I became interested in dispute avoidance and resolution.  For almost 15 years I have been a member of the American Arbitration Association arbitration and mediation panels for large complex commercial and construction disputes.  These disparate aspects of my practice are complementary, and each enhances my capabilities in other areas.  My arbitration experiences have improved my litigation skills, my mediation experiences have expanded my negotiation skills, and my litigation experience enhances my mediation and drafting skills.   =

Like Ginger Rogers, who matched Fred Astaire step for step, only facing backwards and in high heels, the women who practice construction law must be more prepared, more precise and nicer than our brothers at the bar in order to be effective at representing our clients.  Each of us has labored diligently to earn the respect of our peers; credibility is the currency of advocacy. To validate my competence, I have earned certification from the Florida Bar as a construction specialist, and certification in circuit court mediation and qualification as an arbitrator from the Florida Supreme Court Dispute Resolution Center. I have become a continuing legal education junkie, attending as many courses in the construction law field as I can manage to squeeze into my schedule and budget.  As an advocate and as a neutral, I use reason, collaboration and knowledge of the law to establish credibility. Being a woman can help me build trust among disputing parties without provoking competitive responses from advocates or their clients.

Of course, parenthood was also a great training ground for learning how to negotiate and resolve disputes without becoming emotionally enmeshed in the problem at hand. (My children were my best instructors in the art of cross-examination, but that is another story entirely.) Although the "Legally Blonde" persona, albeit clearly effective, is well beyond my personal range, I have from time to time capitalized shamelessly on my maternal status.  Being a woman of a certain age allows me to evoke more civil and professional behavior from angry disputants. Once, I rendered a younger male litigator speechless; he was being verbally abusive to me and my client until I asked him, "Did your mother bring you up to act like this?" 

Even today, there are still very few women who have either a transactional or litigation practice in construction law, and even fewer women practice mediation or arbitration in the disciplines of architectural or engineering design and construction. Women construction law practitioners welcome opportunities to connect with each other and to mentor younger women practicing in this arena.  At bar events, I try to meet all the other women in attendance. I actively support local and national voluntary bar efforts to enhance participation of underrepresented populations at all levels of membership, including leadership, programs and publications.  I try to refer business to other women, to promote women for speaking opportunities and to support them in leadership positions.  When I need to hire professional services, I look for women professionals. I would encourage all women practitioners to reach out to other women in their field, at all levels of experience.  We all benefit both from acting as mentors and seeking out mentors for ourselves.


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