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DAWNE HICKTON | A profile RTI attorney-executive can handle life's trials



Published: Sun, February 9, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



A supportive husband and a professional nanny help the corporate executive and mother of five balance career and family.

By CYNTHIA VINARSKY

VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER

awne Hickton was in Paris, part of a team negotiating RTI International Metals' acquisition of a French metals company.

It was a peak moment for her professionally, and she was immersed in the business at hand -- until she took a break to check her e-mail.

Right at the top, a note from Hickton's teenage son Conor asking for help landing some Pittsburgh Penguin hockey tickets for a date the next day. He had no doubt that his Mom would come through, even from halfway around the world.

And she did.

"That says it all," Hickton said with a wide grin. "My kids know that, wherever I am in the world, they can reach me immediately. I don't think they've ever felt deprived."

Hickton, 45, is an attorney, vice president and general counsel of RTI, a Weathersfield-based titanium producer, distributor and fabricator with 1,200 employees and 17 locations across the United States and Europe.

She's also a wife and mother of five children between the ages of 16 and 4.

The keys

What makes it all work for her, Hickton said, is a cooperative husband who supports her career ambitions, a full-time nanny, and twice-yearly vacations where the family can unwind and connect.

Hickton's husband, David, also is an attorney, in private practice as partner in the Pittsburgh law firm of Burns, White & amp; Hickton. He understands and supports her career, and he's able to adjust his work schedule to spend more time at home when her position requires a trip to Europe or an overnight stay in Texas or California.

The couple has employed a succession of three professional nannies whose roles have changed over the years, from rocking chairs and baby bottles to transporting school-age children to team practices and helping with homework.

And twice annually the family of seven heads South for vacation. The one rule is that there can be no television. "That's a very, very important component. That's my favorite time," she said.

Personal history

Born and raised in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Hickton said she knew from the age of 10 that she wanted to be a lawyer, representing corporations in court. "Not just an attorney, a corporate trial attorney!" she said, laughing.

She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester, took a year off to work and save money, then set off for the University of Pittsburgh law school with a scholarship helping to foot the bill.

Fresh out of law school, she took a job with the in-house law department of USX Corp., now U.S. Steel. The law department had more than 120 lawyers, seven of them women, and within six months of passing the bar she was trying a case.

Early days

Hickton didn't consider herself a pioneer for women in corporate law, although she admits there were few women lawyers doing trial work at the time, especially corporate trial work.

"I'm not one to focus on that. I think if you work hard and you're good at your job, that's your advantage," she said.

She remembers the surprised reactions she encountered when she showed up at one of the company's steel mills to discuss a legal case.

"I remember going up to New York where the company had a labor dispute, and the company had a work trailer there. Clearly they had not had women in this work trailer, so they had to hurry up and turn around all the calendars," she said.

"Things like that would frequently happen, back before you had sexual harassment complaints. I would just find them sort of amusing. I just never took offense to it because I never thought it was meant in an offensive way."

Hickton met and married her husband in 1984 during her 10-year stint at USX, and they started their family.

Career moves

She felt she'd reached a plateau in her career when she was promoted to general attorney of commercial litigation, one step away from the top post in the department, after successfully trying a billion-dollar lawsuit for the company in Utah.

"I knew the next promotion would be a long time in coming," she explained.

At that point, she accepted an offer to teach and run a law clinic at the University of Pittsburgh law school and spent the next 4 1/2 years as an assistant clinical professor of law. She especially enjoyed working with the third-year law students, helping them to get first-hand trial experience.

By then she was seeing many more female law students going into corporate law, and she loved serving as a role model, especially for those interested in litigation and trial work.

She came to work in the Mahoning Valley about six years ago when she got a call from Robert Hernandez, her longtime friend and mentor, who also was chairman of the board for RTI.

"He asked if I was ready to come back to the real world," she said. "I said make me an offer, and they made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

Commuting

With her home in a Pittsburgh suburb and her husband and children in school and in business there, Hickton wouldn't consider a move. Instead she commutes 90 minutes both ways.

For the first few years the company provided her with a driver so she could use the three-hour commuting time productively, but she voluntarily gave up the privilege and began driving herself after Sept. 11, 2001, when RTI was looking for ways to reduce operating costs.

She likes her position at RTI because it involves her in every area of the law, from labor to antitrust concerns, from government contracts to lawsuits to political lobbying.

Besides traveling to Europe about once a year, she also makes monthly trips to RTI plants around the country.

Hickman says she doesn't believe a career woman with a family can truly "have it all."

"You don't do it all. You just do what you can," she said.

"You don't have a lot of your own personal time. There's not a lot of 'me' in this, although I love my job and I love my family, there's not a lot of time to go out with my girlfriends for lunch. I don't always get my exercise in because I have to get my kid to his hockey practice."

vinarsky@vindy.com




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