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Bar News - April 19, 2017


Are We Equal Yet?

By:

Forty years ago in New Hampshire, law was still primarily a man’s profession. When a female attorney was mistaken for a legal secretary or a paralegal, it wasn’t appalling; it was expected. Women arguing cases in courtrooms or boardrooms were still an unusual sight.

Back then, a New Hampshire governor made nominating a woman to the bench part of his campaign platform. It was a promise he kept – NH Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis became the first woman to serve as a full-time Superior Court judge in 1980. Marcia Brown, chair of the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Gender Equality Committee, remembers clearly “the buzz” that surrounded Dalianis in those early days.

“That was the first time I realized I could do something other than being a bank teller or a stay-at-home mom,” recalls Brown, who has her own law practice. “That summer was an epiphany for me – that there should be equality, and that our stations in life should not depend on our gender. I don’t consider myself a militant gender-equality person; I just want to make sure people have the opportunity in their careers to earn what they want to earn and do what they want to do, without the distraction or the burden of bias.”

For the most part, that’s what women entering the legal profession in New Hampshire today expect, but it’s not always what they get. As members of the New Hampshire bar mark 100 years since the state’s first woman lawyer was admitted to practice, what is the status of gender equality within the legal profession in the Granite State? Evolving expectations among women entering the legal profession are part of the answer. They illustrate some of the progress that has been made, says Brown.

“It occurs to me that many of our young members were toddlers when many of our early women lawyers were fighting this fight, so they don’t have that memory of what it was like to be facing bias at this level,” she says. “The younger lawyers are so accustomed to gender not being an issue that when it is referenced as a determining factor or somehow in an interview question, it catches them off guard. I’m happy that they presume going into the interview that there’s a level playing field. We’ve achieved that. That is a success.”

In addition to generational differences in experiences and expectations related to gender equality in New Hampshire’s legal community, there also appear to be differences between the public and private sector, in terms of the likelihood that those evolving expectations of equality will be met.

Kara Simard is president of the NH Women’s Bar Association. A public defender in Nashua, she previously worked in private practice, and although she says she was always treated with respect and without bias at her firm, that hasn’t been the experience of some of her colleagues or of some attorneys who shared stories with Bar News.

“I’ve talked to younger female attorneys who have entered the practice somewhat recently who are still getting questions in interviews about their family plans,” she says. “I’ve heard of women not wearing wedding or engagement rings to interviews to avoid getting those questions.”

Over the past 10 years, more women have started opening their own firms in New Hampshire, and the NH Women’s Bar Association and the NHBA Gender Equality Committee have shifted their focus from the system to the individual, in hopes of training and empowering women lawyers, particularly in the private sector.

“I think there are examples of law firms in this state that are on a consistent basis losing female partners and losing female associates for whatever reason,” says Simard. “There’s still more work to be done to figure out why they’re leaving and how firms can correct the issues in order to encourage them to stay... It might be more apparent in other cities and states, but it does still exist here from what I’ve heard.”

Christina Ferrari, vice president of the NH Women’s Bar Association, said there’s still a shortage of women in decision-making roles at New Hampshire law firms. “It’s hard for women to make change if they’re not at the leadership table,” she says. “We need to get women a seat at the table so they can have a role in crafting policies and cultures, to make it better for people, and that’s part of what we try to do.”

Outside the legal profession, gender bias also persists. Manchester attorney Maureen Manning recalls a woman client who not long ago decided she wanted a man on her case instead. “She needed somebody ‘stronger.’ That was the only word she could come up with,” Manning said.

An event scheduled for Thursday, June 1, in Concord aims to celebrate the history of women in law in New Hampshire. Jennifer Parent, a coordinator of “The First 100 Years: Women Lawyers” event and a partner at McLane Middleton, says she hopes that through education and awareness, in a few more decades, the issue of gender equality will no longer be an issue at all.

“I look forward to the day when we stop saying ‘this is the first woman to…’ either be appointed to office or lead a Fortune 500 company,” says Parent. “I look forward to the day when that’s no longer what we say because it’s been done and it’s part of the general, normal way of things.”

Purchase tickets for the First 100 Years event.

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