Positive changes for female trial attorneys in Illinois

There have been many positive changes for female trial attorneys in Illinois. The number of organizations geared toward the advancement of female trial lawyers and female membership in other trial organizations is definitely on the rise. Sandra McMullen, co-chair of the Civil Litigation Committee of the Women's Bar Association, stated that the Committee currently has more than 50 members. The members are given many opportunities, including invitations to attend dinners with various judges and other professionals in the field. Of the 100-150 total members of the Chicago Inn of Court, approximately 30-35 percent are female. The percentage increases when looking only at the younger classes of lawyers, suggesting that the numbers will continue to grow. The Illinois Trial Lawyer's Association, an organization devoted to protecting the rights of the injured through trial by jury, has more than 2,000 members. Approximately 15-20 percent of those members are female. The National Institute for Trial Advocacy, a national trial education organization, recently held its national training session for trial lawyers. This year, 17 of the 45 faculty members were female, including the Program Director.

It seems that this increase in active female trial attorneys is beginning in the law schools. Participation by females in competitive trial advocacy settings has experienced a tremendous change over the past few years. Ken Cunniff, Director of trial teams at The John Marshall Law School, says there has been a "dramatic increase" in the number of female participants in trial team competitions. He said that only 10 years ago, virtually all of the competitors were male. Now, nearly 75 percent of the student participants are female. He also stated that the quality of the women participants is "superb," noting that several of the recent national trial team competition finalists included one or more female participants. Mr. Cunniff attributes this increase to the additional opportunities now available to women in their undergraduate colleges.

Steve Lubet, Professor of Law and Director of Bartlit Center on Trial Strategy for Northwestern Law School, echoes these trends. He stated that a large number of the students in the trial advocacy program are female, which is a significant change from the past. For the last few years, his program has actually had a "very clear majority" of female members. Trial teams from Northwestern have been named national champions three times, and each of those times, at least one team member was female.

Practicing attorneys also look optimistic about the role of female trial attorneys. Kathryn Kelly, an Assistant United States Attorney since 1995, stated that she has not had to face many obstacles or hurdles because of her gender as a trial attorney in federal court. She stated that there is still a majority of men in the courtroom, but that the number of women in federal court has increased. She also noted that at times her gender is a benefit, as a large number of influential female trial attorneys reach out to younger female attorneys in an effort to show the opportunities available and capabilities of female trial attorneys.

Ellen Schanzle-Haskins was also positive about the status of female trial attorneys. Ms. Schanzle-Haskins has been a practicing trial attorney for 20 years. She began as an Assistant United States Attorney and then acted as prosecutor for the Illinois Attorney General's Office. She then worked in private practice before becoming Director of the Illinois Court of Claims. Ms. Schanzle-Haskins is now the Chief Counsel of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Homeland Security, Anti-Terrorism Task Force and the Department of Nuclear Safety. She expressed that the biggest hurdle to overcome as a female trial attorney is building trust. She works almost exclusively with men, and said that some men "don't immediately trust you, which is crucial to effective prosecution." She said you also have to try to gain the confidence and trust of the jury, who, because of your gender, are initially "not sure about you." She said that while these burdens are significant and difficult to overcome, she now firmly believes it can be accomplished. She also noted there has been a dramatic positive change in the attitudes toward female trial attorneys since she graduated law school in 1976.

While the status of female trial attorneys has advanced, there is always room for improvement. The number of women active in organizations, while drastically improved, is still relatively low compared to men. There is also room for change in the courtroom itself. Ms. Kelly stated that the attitudes toward and numbers of women in some state courtrooms is not as consistent as in federal court. Further, honors awarded to female trial attorneys are still low compared to men. The American College of Trial Lawyers is arguably the "premier professional organization" for attorneys in the country. Trial attorneys become fellows only by invitation and after an extensive investigation to determine whether the trial attorney's career has reached the highest standards of accomplishment and professionalism. Out of 286 fellows elected in Illinois, only approximately 11 fellows are female. Warren Lightfoot, President of the American College of Trial Lawyers, recognized the discrepancy and stated that the members of the College "work very hard to increase our female membership." They attempt to do this by placing females on committees to network and offer the names of highly qualified female trial attorneys that may have otherwise been overlooked.

So, while the status of female trial lawyers in Illinois has definitely improved and is always positively changing, there is always more room for advancement. But if these trends continue, the future for female trial attorneys looks optimistic.

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September 2003Volume 9Number 1