Gretchen Mundorff came home after a junior high school civics class and confidently announced to her family that she planned to become a trial lawyer.
"I was 14; I had no idea what that meant except that I loved reruns of [television series] 'Perry Mason' and 'Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law,' " said the native of South Connellsville, Fayette County.
Four decades later, Ms. Mundorff has a thriving litigation practice in her hometown, and this week will receive a statewide honor for her professional accomplishments inside and outside the courtroom. She is the 2013 recipient of the Anne X. Alpern Award from the Pennsylvania Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession.
The Alpern award is given annually to a female attorney or judge who has made a significant impact on women in the law. It is named for a former state Supreme Court justice and Allegheny County judge who in 1959 became the first female state attorney general in Pennsylvania as well as the first woman to hold that job in the U.S.
Ms. Mundorff, 54, will receive the award Thursday during the commission's annual conference being held at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh, Downtown. The state bar association is meeting at the hotel Wednesday and Thursday.
She acknowledged being a trailblazer of sorts in the Connellsville area, where in 1989 she co-founded a law firm with one partner that has now grown to seven lawyers, Watson Mundorff Brooks & Sepic.
She also is one of only two women to serve as president of the state bar association in its 118-year history. She was at the helm for the 2010-11 term. The other female president, Leslie Anne Miller of Philadelphia, served in 1998-99.
"There's still a need for Anne Alperns," Ms. Mundorff said. "[Women] need to mentor each other. We don't have gender equality in this country or in this state, sadly. I will be elated when we do have gender equality across the board and I will be happy to give up the title of 'first woman this' or 'first woman that.' "
Though she never wavered about becoming a lawyer, Ms. Mundorff took a series of pre-med courses as a psychology major at Chatham College, which is now Chatham University. "I liked biology, research, the lab work and statistical analysis. I overloaded on classes, and people were joking at graduation that I could sell them some credits."
After earning her bachelor's degree, she immediately enrolled in the William & Mary Law School and landed at a Pittsburgh firm after graduation.
But it wasn't long before she was back in Connellsville working for one of her mentors, Ira Coldren, another past president of the state bar association who died in 2008.
"I really missed the culture of my hometown. It's a really small town where everybody knows everybody, and I go to the same church where I was baptized. My clients watched me grow up. Families and family life means a lot here," she said.
When Ms. Mundorff began practicing law in the early 1980s, "There was not a plethora of female lawyers in Fayette County," she said.
Back then, she found comfort and friendship with a group of female attorneys who met monthly for lunch to talk about legal issues "and of course we talked about the guys. There were all male judges back then, of course. Thankfully, that has changed."
These days, there's less time for lunch, Ms. Mundorff believes, because technology has intensified the practice of law.
"When I started, we were still using books. I thought the fax machine was really high tech. Secretaries were taking messages on pink slips." With information now a click away on smartphones and laptops, clients expect to get answers more rapidly, she said.
"There are unrealistic expectations of technology. I give my clients a choice. I can give you an answer right now as you sit here and it will be what I think is the case without reflection or research. Or you can wait. They're perplexed."
In an era when email and texts have replaced some personal conversations, Ms. Mundorff said the state bar association provides "that kind of glue we used to place a value on in society in general ... social support and a network. And for me, that's really important when you practice in a rural county where there may not be a role model or mentor in your particular field."
Ms. Mundorff, who is married to a retired Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad executive, spends her time away from her legal practice trying to take advantage of outdoor recreational activities along the Youghiogheny River such as hiking, biking and kayaking. "I should have been a national park ranger."
Also on Thursday, the bar association's Commission on Women in the Profession will present its Lynette Norton Award to Catherine "Candy" Barr Heimbach, a partner in the Bethlehem office of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. That award, named for Ms. Norton, a Pittsburgh trial lawyer who died in 2002, recognizes female attorneys who excel in litigation and who mentor other female lawyers.
In addition, six firms based in Pittsburgh or with offices here will be recognized for their programs or initiatives that help female lawyers advance their careers. They are: Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott; Reed Smith; Duane Morris; Fox Rothschild; Pepper Hamilton; and Saul Ewing.
Scheduled to speak at the awards luncheon is Sandra Fluke, a native of Saxton, Bedford County, who while working on her law degree at Georgetown University last year gained national attention when she testified on Capitol Hill about whether insurance plans should cover contraceptives.