Women Lawyers Still Fighting for Equity

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Women are expected to surpass the number of male law students this fall, and 30 years after they began to enter law schools in large numbers, they now represent about 30 percent of all lawyers. Yet, the numbers don’t add up to gender equity for women lawyers.

On Tuesday, prominent female attorneys openly talked about their professional lives that are constricted by bias, and doled out a mixture of good advice, frank complaints and some strategies at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, one of the oldest and most influential bars in the United States. Child care and work-family balance still remain an enormous challenge, they said.

Martha E. Gifford, president of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, laid the groundwork by setting out the facts of life for most female lawyers.

“The numbers of women coming into the profession are not at all being matched by numbers of women advancing into senior ranks,” Gifford said.

“Women are becoming partner at only marginally increased rate,” she said, “which illustrates very clearly that we’ve reached a standstill, and that shouldn’t be happening.”

Women lack access to informal networks and key clients who can help them advance, the number of women in high positions such as firm partners is still low, their commitment to the profession is questioned, and they earn less than men, according to the findings of a recent study, “Practical Strategies for Responding to Gender Bias in the Legal Profession,” issued by the Women and Law Committee of the New York City bar association.

In addition, the American Bar Association reported that from 1985 to 2000, of all lawyers admitted to practice, 37 percent were women, but from 1995 to 2000, the percentage of women partners in the 250 largest law firms in the United States increased from just 14 percent to 15.6 percent. Moreover, women account for only 15 percent of federal judges, 10 percent of law school deans and general counsels and 5 percent of managing partners of large firms. Women of color account for only 3 percent of the profession.

Women Lawyers Earn $20,000 Less Than Male Colleagues

On average, women earn about $20,000 less than male lawyers. Moreover, men are at least twice as likely as similarly qualified women to obtain partnerships, again according to the ABA report.

The panelists emphasized the importance of finding mentors early on and of networking not only for career advancement, but also as a source of support.

“A lot of judges and lawyers are not comfortable with women lawyers–that’s why it’s great to have mentors and networks,” said Heather Zona, litigation counsel at March and McLennan Companies. “If you’re going to court, you can be better prepared to know that a certain judge makes inappropriate comments.”

Networking and mentoring are important in finding clients and jobs, but women still face roadblocks in these areas, especially women of color.

“Women of color don’t do as much networking as white women because they don’t feel comfortable at places where networking happens, like the city bar,” said Taa Grays, an assistant district attorney in the Bronx and president of the Black Women’s Bar Association.

Women of Color May Shy Away, Believing They Are Not Welcome

“They feel like they’re not well received and people are not interested in talking to them, so they don’t return. It’s also expensive to be part of the city bar, and some are not willing to bite the bullet and pay the money because they don’t feel welcome,” Grays added.

The realities and challenges for women of color in the legal profession will be the subject of discussion Wednesday at the New York bar association.

Co-workers insensitive to gender issues also create problems.

“I always wanted to work at a firm, but it was difficult to go to work and take advantage of the benefits of a great job because the people got in the way,” Zona said. She recalled she had one job that featured great assignments and a good mentor, but one person in charge of her talked about “things” that would entitle her to sue for sexual harassment. “When you’re in that type of situation, weigh it and figure out if the job is really worth it to put up with the people.”

For the women attorneys, like other professionals, a major concern was balancing family life with the demands of a career.

“Balancing career plans with family choices around children continues to daunt women in a very major way,” said Barbara Ryan, a partner at Aaronson, Rappaport, Feinstein and Deutsch.

“Reliable child care options for women who go to work aren’t up to standards that women feel comfortable with. If they had attractive child care options closer to the work site, that would give women a lot more options to stay on a career path. I would say that’s the biggest obstacle,” Ryan said.

Some law students also said that balancing family and work is the most difficult issue facing women attorneys.

“A lot of women figure they can spend a few years making money in the city, but when you have kids you won’t be able to work at a big firm. It seems slightly incompatible because of the hours,” said Danielle Alfonzo Walsman, a second-year student at Columbia University Law School.

Women Urged to Be Undaunted, Set Ambitious Goals

Panelists encouraged the women to consider a variety of options for child care and to be ambitious in setting career goals.

“When I had my child, I was the primary breadwinner; my husband was doing his Ph.D., so he was the primary caretaker,” said Rachel Godsil, assistant professor of law at Seton Hall Law School.

Godsil also urged women not to succumb to gender-based insecurities.

“I didn’t know any woman in my law school who thought she could be a law professor,” she said. “I want women to think of themselves to be in any role. I didn’t think I had what it took to be a professor because all the professors were flashy men.”

Vaishalee Mishra is a journalist in New York.

Editor’s note: Women’s Enews uses the word “and” in place of the ampersand in the names of law firms because of transmission requirements.

For more information, visit:

American Bar Association, “The Unfinished Agenda: Women and the Legal Profession”:
http://www.abanet.org/ftp/pub/women/unfinishedagenda.pdf (PDF file, 490KB)

Association of the Bar of the City of New York, New York Panel for Women Lawyers of Color: “Multi-Cultural Women and the Law, Managing Your Legal Career”:
http://www.abcny.org/


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