Bar News - April 19, 2017
In Their Own Words: Bar Members Discuss Gender Equality in NH Law Practice
How the Women’s Bar Was Born
In the summer of 1984, I worked in Washington, DC, at the National Organization for Women, getting to see firsthand the work being done on a national level to advance women’s equality. After graduating from FPLC in 1986, I realized that New Hampshire had no formal women’s bar associations. At the time I graduated, I was serving on the NH Women’s Lobby board and in 1989 I began a two-year term as its president. After this experience, I began to think further about a women’s bar association. I remember talking with many attorneys, men and women, about this and whether they agreed that this was a good idea. There were definitely mixed reactions amongst both sexes. Some people thought that women should just get more involved in the NHBA and work to blend in. Others thought that a women’s bar association would bring leadership, networking, and mentoring opportunities that the New Hampshire Bar Association would not be able to offer women at the same level.
Ultimately, I decided to work with other like-minded women lawyers and the Hillsborough County Women’s Bar Association (HCWBA) was born. It was a great success from the get-go. We immediately had well over 100 members, set up a referral network, ran CLEs of interest to our members, and created social opportunities for women attorneys to meet other women attorneys. As the first president of the HCWBA, I reflect back on where we started and where we are now. A few years after the HCWBA was formed, we went state-wide, forming the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association. Although over the past years women have had leadership opportunities in the NHBA, the NHWBA is thriving and providing opportunities for women attorneys that exceed our original expectations.
- Maureen Manning
How ‘Brother’ Faded from Practice
I retired from the Laconia firm of Normandin, Cheney & O’Neil, at the end of 2013 after practicing 40 years in Belknap County. I came to New Hampshire in 1973 right out of law school at Georgetown University Law Center. In law school, I had many women classmates, but Franklin Pierce Law Center/UNH School of Law was just getting started and had yet to graduate its first class. I didn’t run into any women attorneys in New Hampshire until 1977 or so. Prior to that, I knew there was a female attorney in Grafton County who would perform title searches, and there was a female law school graduate in Laconia who was also doing title work. I also understood that there was a female attorney working in one of the larger Manchester law firms who was doing probate work. I wasn’t aware of any others practicing in any capacity in New Hampshire and hadn’t met any in Court.
New Hampshire was (and still is) considered a very collegial Bar, and the practice among attorneys (all male) at the time was to refer to each other in open Court and in correspondence as “Brother…” Receiving a letter with a salutation addressing the recipient as Dear “Mr.” or Dear “Attorney” would usually signal a difficult relationship was to follow.
I remember being in Belknap County Superior Court, with Judge William Keller presiding, and the issue of how to refer to a female attorney came up. After referring to the male attorneys as “Brother,” the judge went on to address the female attorney, after a little hesitation, as “Sister.” That didn’t seem to sit well with anyone present, and from that point on, the term “Brother” was dropped in correspondence and in Court. We all proceeded referring to each other as “Attorney.” I think the Bar has been better for the change and has remained as collegial as ever.
- Phil Bonafide
Mothers Can Be Litigators, Too
In the late 1980s, after a couple of years of working with a New Hampshire firm, I became pregnant. Throughout my pregnancy, I continued working the same hours, including early morning arrival and frequent weekends, until, toward the end of my pregnancy, I explained to the supervising partner that I would no longer be able to work weekends because of a pregnancy-related complication. The partner responded that he, too, would like to spend more time with his family, but he did not do so because of work demands, implying that I should not be reducing my hours at all.
After giving birth, I planned to return to the office within a few months, the typical unpaid maternity leave at that time. I met with the partner to discuss the logistics of my planned return. I learned that I would be reassigned from litigation to estate planning, an area in which I had no experience and there was no senior attorney to serve as a mentor. From various comments made directly and indirectly, it became clear that the firm did not believe that a mother could be a litigator, but my input was not sought. As a result, I decided not to return to that firm.
A few months later, I began a job search in Massachusetts. I received a call from a Boston firm to which I had applied. The hiring partner asked why the partner at my old firm would have complimented my work but questioned my commitment to the law. After all these years, I can still remember the sinking feeling and fear that I would never get another job! I related my need to slightly reduce my hours at the end of my pregnancy, and the comments that were made, and the Boston attorney went on to say that, of course family was more important, as it should be – and he offered me the job. I ultimately accepted another offer, but I have been forever grateful to that Boston hiring partner.
- Cynthia Sullivan
Success Through Leadership Diversity
Hon. Susan Carbon
Since my admission to the Bar 37 years ago, I have had the good fortune to have had the immense support of my male colleagues. I was the first woman hired by my law firm (Wescott, Millham & Dyer in Laconia). My partners supported me in all my endeavors, including running for President of the New Hampshire Bar Association in 1993-94. I also had the opportunity to chair the Task Force on Women in the Bar, which exposed the extent to which our profession still harbored prejudice. My professional highlight was being appointed by then-President Barack Obama to head the US Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.
I have been giving a lot of thought to the issue of how change happens (from a gender perspective), and one example from my professional experience really stands out. When I was at OVW, then-Vice President Joe Biden wanted to see the FBI’s definition of “rape” changed. The definition adopted in 1929 was just this: “The carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” Obviously a very limited definition that excluded many horrid forms of rape. Perhaps the greatest challenge I have ever encountered professionally was pursuading the FBI to change this definition to its present one – “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” This means any gender of victim or perpetrator, and includes when a victim is incapacitated (by drugs or alcohol), or because of age. Physical resistance is no longer required. This was huge. It has profoundly changed the landscape for victims across the country.
I don’t think we would have succeeded in securing this change but for having women on the various committees that had to vote on this (there were multiple layers to this process). But what got us over the edge with the hold-out committees was an internationally renowned detective from Tennessee, who has been a leading law enforcement voice for decades, who finally convinced the recalcitrant men that the old definition was just plain wrong and offensive. We could not have gotten this up for a vote without the strong leadership of the women within the FBI. Multiple attempts had been made in years prior, before women were a part of the committee process. Having women in leadership positions fundamentally changes the discourse and truly does make a difference. But having male colleagues who share enlightened views also helps bring change we all need, women and men. I think this is a good example of what we’ve seen historically at both the local and national levels.
- Hon. Susan Carbon
No Continuance for Giving Birth
After learning that a trial date potentially conflicted with my due date, a judge ordered months in advance that no continuance would be granted in the case, even if I was in labor. The judge stated in the order that there was time to arrange for other counsel to cover the case or for the client to get new counsel.
‘Do You Have a Family?’
I was woefully underprepared for my first interview at a prestigious law firm. My recommendation letters were written for a “Sarah Rogers,” (my maiden name). The name on my resume was “Sarah Warecki,” and I was asked about that discrepancy.
When I responded that I’d just gotten married in January, the two men interviewing me shared a look, and that’s when the interview took a turn. The older interviewer scratched his beard as he tried to figure out ways to ask me illegal questions without actually asking them. “So,” he said, “you’re recently married? Does that… Can you think of any reason you think you wouldn’t be able to do this job over the next three years?”
When he didn’t get the answers he was looking for, he became more direct: “Do you have a family?” My reply was, “Yes. I have four sisters, and my mother and father are both living.” He was befuddled. Needless to say, I wasn’t offered the job.
By the time I got my first job, I was wary. For the first time in my life, I felt like my femininity was a liability. I’d never before experienced the instinct to shrink away or hide, but I suddenly wanted to hide that portion of myself.
Within the New Hampshire Bar, I’ve been called “cute.” I’ve been mistaken for a secretary (more than once). I’ve been shushed. I’ve heard my sisters at bar told to watch their tone. I’ve smiled politely at insults, and have been told to smile more. I’ve been labeled “aggressive,” a characterization that may not always be unfair, but I can’t help wondering if the description would change, if I were a man.
Thankfully, I have also found strong female role models in the New Hampshire Bar, like attorneys Kirsten Wilson, Diana Fenton, and Judge Marguerite Wageling, among others. Seeing these powerful and dynamic women wear their femininity with pride instead of shame helped me feel like maybe I could, too.
- Sarah Warecki
Contempt Theatened Over Pants
In 1999 or 2000, when I was a Public Defender, I heard a judge tell a female attorney who was wearing a pantsuit that it was inappropriate for a woman to be wearing pants in court, and that he would hold her in contempt if she ever wore pants in his courtroom again.
Several years ago, I was in the NH Supreme Court, wearing a suit and carrying a case file, when an older male attorney came up and asked me if I was a paralegal. I told him that I was an attorney, and that I was waiting to argue my case. He then said that he had assumed I was a paralegal because I was a woman.
I do think things have gotten better, because there are now so many women in the legal profession, including women who serve on the New Hampshire Supreme Court and as United States Supreme Court justices. There are also a lot of younger people in the profession who don’t remember the days when women belonged to their husbands and belonged in the home, which is something I grew up with (I am 61 years old and grew up in a very “traditional” military family with a stay-at-home mother) and still had to deal with when I was trying to become an attorney. One of the reasons I worked for the public defender and now work for the Attorney General is because both organizations respect and value female attorneys and give them equal opportunities and equal pay, which is not always the case in private law firms.
- Susan McGinnis
No Deposition Break to Breastfeed
Winter 2016, I was a nursing mother. I was also back to work. Male opposing counsel was very aware I was a new mother as the deposition was rescheduled due to my maternity leave. Noon came and I requested a lunch break to handle business. Male opposing counsel refused to take a lunch. I was caught so off guard, I asked to go off record and excuse myself to gain my composure. Fortunately, the deposition was occurring at my office and my boss was there.
Being the fabulous employer that he is, I told him what was occurring. He stepped in and handled my case for the 30 minutes that I required. After this was said and done, I realized I should have put this situation on the record and told him he will take a break and resume, and if that was not okay, that would be just too bad. Nevertheless, three months post-baby I was not thinking like that (I was trying to survive).