While pursuing an undergraduate degree in English literature and women's studies at Penn State, Lisa Wampler spent her summers working on the assembly line of a steel panel manufacturing plant in her hometown of Annville, Lebanon County. A hard hat and steel-tipped shoes were mandatory.
So Ms. Wampler, 36, an attorney who specializes in construction law, has never felt out of place at job sites or in meetings where she is frequently the lone woman in a roomful of general contractors, trade union workers and property owners.
"It was challenging in the beginning when I was fairly young. But I've never despaired because I've never been a quitter."
On Jan. 1, Ms. Wampler was named a partner in the construction group of Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman. She is based in the Pittsburgh office of the Philadelphia firm and joins the ranks of a relatively small group of female lawyers who specialize in the construction sector.
Of a total 22 attorneys on the Allegheny County Bar Association's construction law section council, six are women. There are a total of 29 women out of 191 lawyers in that section.
"There have been some strides made, but not huge movement in the amount of women in construction law or, frankly, in the construction business, whether it's engineers, architects or contractors," said Rebecca Lando, a partner in Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney's Pittsburgh office who has been practicing law for more than 25 years and specializes in commercial real estate.
Among the women in Pittsburgh who have carved out a niche in construction law, most didn't aspire to that specialty.
Ann Graff, 35, an undergraduate nutrition major at Penn State, joined Houston Harbaugh after law school at the University of Pittsburgh and split her work at the firm between commercial litigation and construction work.
"When I got involved in [construction] through senior attorneys, I found it rewarding, exciting and challenging."
She joined the Pittsburgh office of Pepper Hamilton in 2007, representing contractors, subcontractors, property owners, architects and engineers in litigation matters, with a focus on construction-related claims that range from design defects to project delays.
Women lawyers are "certainly in the minority" in the field, said Ms. Graff, one of several attorneys who serve on the board of the National Association of Women in Construction's Pittsburgh chapter. "Though I imagine we have greater representation than 10 years ago and our numbers will be greater 10 years from now."
Some women in the specialty observed that more females work as in-house counsel for construction and contracting firms than on the law firm side -- possibly because lawyers at those companies can maintain more predictable schedules than firm attorneys.
Denise Pampena has worked on both sides. She practiced corporate and real estate finance law as an associate at Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling (which later merged with Buchanan Ingersoll) from 1988 until 1992. Then she became vice president and counsel of her family's business, Graziano Construction and Development.
In 2000, she was named president of the business previously run by her late father and grandfather.
At Klett Rooney, "I was not a construction lawyer even though our family business was construction," she said. "Ironically, I always wanted to be a lawyer, but I did not know I would join the family business."
Her legal background has benefited Ms. Pampena when she addresses issues such as lending, permits and complex documents, she said. "Our clients are getting more value from having my experience on the legal end."
In the two decades she has been in the construction business, she's observed that when women join a project meeting -- whether they be lawyers, engineers or architects -- they may be subject to more questions than their male peers.
"The men will wonder, 'Can she do the job?' I'm sure that was out there with me. The name of our company was established, but it had been run by my father and grandfather since inception. For a woman, it's harder."
Amy Joseph Coles, 36, started her career as an associate at Reed Smith's Pittsburgh office doing a range of litigation work. But she gravitated toward construction law and litigation because she liked working with the partners who were handling that for the firm.
When three of them left for the Pittsburgh office of Duane Morris, she moved, too.
"I liked the kind of people and clients I was working with in construction," she said. "There's not a lot of gamesmanship ... especially among the guys in the field. They just want to let you know how they got the project done, [and] that's what the courts want to hear. They want to know how it was built."
Some contractors and field workers are nervous or guarded when they meet her for the first time, Ms. Joseph Coles said. "They'll be afraid to swear. They see a woman in the room and think they have to watch their language. I don't want them to drop the f-bomb constantly but I want them to tell me what they saw and did on the job.
"I tell them not say the f-bomb to the judge."
Although she had a strong interest in environmental law after graduating from the Dickinson School of Law of Penn State in 2001, Ms. Wampler said the construction area "kind of found me."
She was let go during a round of layoffs at Buchanan Ingersoll in 2002 and then joined Cohen Seglias as an associate to help launch its Pittsburgh office. Because of the firm's construction litigation specialty, she immediately became immersed in project delay claims, contract negotiations and bid protests.
"Most often I am the only female in the room. In the beginning, I had two hurdles. First was making them understand I am an attorney who understands the law. They thought I was a secretary there to take notes.
"Second, I had to make them realize I knew the ins and outs of their business," Ms. Wampler said.
She networks in many construction trade groups dominated by men. "It can be awkward if it's my first time at an event. It's like the record stops when a woman walks in."
At Cohen Seglias, Ms. Wampler founded a women's initiative through which female attorneys and office department heads address issues of work-life balance and leadership.
When she began the initiative in 2011, the firm had no female partners; now there are two -- Ms. Wampler and a woman in New York.
"I thought women should have a place to pick each others' brains and talk openly," she said. "Most are mothers so they are dealing with issues of family life. I don't have children, but I was sensitive to my co-workers' life balance."
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.