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Bar News - November 23, 2007

We Can Change Our Profession’s Future


Arabella Mansfield was our nation’s first woman lawyer, admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869. The next year, Ada Kepley became the first woman to obtain a law degree. By 1880, there were 200 women lawyers in the United States, yet most were barred from prac-ticing law, and even courts expressed the belief that women might be unfit to practice law.


In 1870, the Illinois Supreme Court denied Myra Colby Bradwell’s applica-tion to the bar. “That God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action, and that it belonged to men to make, apply, and execute laws, was regarded as an almost axiomatic truth,” the court wrote.


The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, and in a concurring opinion, Justice Joseph Bradley noted that women did not have a fundamental right “to engage in any and every profession, occupation, or employment in civil life” and that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.”


By 1900, 34 states admitted women to the practice of law. That number had increased to 46, including the District of Columbia, by 1917. Yet for years, extraordinary gender bias persisted in the legal profession. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor graduated third in her Stanford Law School class in 1953 (former Chief Justice William Rehnquist was first), yet the only job offer she got on graduation was for a position as a legal secretary.


Women have made big gains in law school admissions in recent decades. In 1947, only 3.5 percent of first-year law students were women, and the total female enrollment for that year was 3.3 percent. During the past academic year, 46.3 percent of first years were women, and women represented 46.9 percent of all students who enrolled.


But women attorneys still struggle to keep pace with their male counterparts in the workforce. A recent survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers showed that women are well represented at the lowest level of the legal profession, constituting about 45 percent of associates. But only 26 percent of nonequity partners and 16 percent of top-level partners are women. The median weekly salary for women attorneys is about 78 percent of the salary for male lawyers. Sadly, women make up only 19 percent of AAJ’s membership.


Pay it forward


We can do nothing about the past, but we can and must change the future. It would be unwise and unfair to delegate solely to women the responsibility for changing the legal profession. The battle against bias can be won only if men and women join ranks in the fight.


Law firm partners should ensure that their offices offer flexible schedules that let women who choose to become mothers stay on the partnership track. Bias must be eliminated in the parceling out of “plum” assignments and leadership positions. Firms need to be creative in promoting more networking opportunities for women.


But the real cure for gender bias is effective mentoring. Incorporating a few mentoring principles into your workday can make all the difference.


Teach by example. Make sure that female associates are included in trials, depositions, and client meetings. Allow them to see how you deal with clients and opposing attorneys. Show that an advocate can be forceful and friendly, strong and yet reasonable.


Listen. Spend time getting to know female associates. Find out where their interests lie and what problems they face in achieving success.


Share. Talk to female associates about your experiences—the bad as well as the good. Introduce them to other attorneys you work with to help them build their networks.


Be an advocate. Make sure female associates are given meaningful assignments and are evaluated fairly.


AAJ is committed to the principle that a good trial lawyer must not be defined or limited by gender. The Women Trial Lawyers Caucus has stepped up its efforts to recruit women trial lawyers to AAJ while providing existing members with leadership and networking opportunities. For exam-ple, the group’s Lobby Days event—held every other spring in Washington, D.C.—gives members a chance to speak directly with members of Congress about how legislation might affect clients and their access to civil justice.


You, too, can help ensure that the tal-ented and determined women in our profession have every opportunity to achieve success in their careers. Work to create a positive and supportive environment for the women lawyers in your firm and consider being a mentor. It may be the best—and most rewarding—career move you make.


Reprinted with permission by the author and of  TRIAL, the Journal of the American Association for Justice (August 2007) Copyright American Association for Justice, formerly Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA®)



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