Women’s Bar Associations: Finding a model that works as hard as we do

Whatever women do, they must do it twice as well as men to be thought of half as well. Luckily, this isn’t difficult.” – Charlotte Whitton.

Clearly, Charlotte wasn’t a woman lawyer. Many of us do have to prove ourselves by outperforming our male colleagues. But we can’t fool ourselves —it IS difficult. Add to this that women often have twice as much to do as most men, and you get a perfect recipe for stress and burnout. Clearly we need help. Can we get it through membership in a Women’s Bar Association? These groups often lean toward one of two extremes—either they encourage their members to become the equivalent of legal Amazons, or they become a high-calorie coffee klatch. Neither extreme meets the complex needs of today’s women lawyers.

In the last month, I’ve attended a number of meetings of women lawyers. In between taking care of business, these meetings have involved a number of conversations about what it really takes to succeed as a woman lawyer. With humor, anger, frustration and pride, the women I spoke with compared notes.

We discovered that even seemingly innocuous verbiage can cause problems. At the August meeting of the ISBA’s Women and the Law Committee, we found ourselves in an unexpected debate over the term “networking.” Some members felt women lawyers were less likely to attend events billed as “networking” activities. They said that in their experience, women felt that “networking” seemed artificial and impersonal and was not a valuable use of their time. Others suggested that men succeed through networking, so women who want to be successful need to do the same. The discussion turned to the idea of perhaps using another word (instead of “networking”) to describe such an event. I found out recently that’s been tried: a friend of mine who works as a patent attorney for the government said she recently had to attend a “cross-fertilization” (NOT “networking”) event. She said she spent the evening vaguely embarrassed and feeling more like a plant than a lawyer.

Which brings us to the larger question. As a male counterpart in my county bar association asks EVERY time he sees me (I’m the president of the local Women’s Bar), “Why do you even have a ‘girl’s’ Bar Association? We don’t have a ‘Men’s Bar Association!’” Much as I hate to admit it, he has a point.

Do we as women attorneys band together to figure out how to beat the boys at their own game? Is our goal to network harder, play tougher, and bluff meaner? Conversely, maybe Women’s Bar Associations should be a place we can go (for some of us, the ONLY place) where we can feel comfortable. Forget networking—bring on the brownies and gossip! Either of these extremes can cost a group members. Neither garners respect from the larger legal community. Where is the middle ground?

To me, the best and highest purpose of a Women’s Bar Association surfaced largely by accident at the October meeting of the Will County Women’s Bar. We had a nice mix of young lawyers and more seasoned litigators, mothers and single women, from a wide variety of backgrounds and practice areas. Over lunch, we talked about the unique hurdles we face as women lawyers. Two of us, with young children, laughed as we recounted days in which we’d spent nine hours at work, fixed dinner and helped with homework, only to realize at the end of the day that we hadn’t even had five minutes to go to the bathroom. We talked about being called “missy” in court, and about clients who won’t believe we’re “real” lawyers.

We talked about our strengths as well. We are often better listeners, which gives us an advantage both in negotiation and in litigation. By being smaller and less prone to posturing, we can “sneak under the radar” of male opposing counsel who are used to the more traditionally male model of lawyering. And we talked about our own idea of what success really is. For some of us, it’s landing a million dollar lawsuit. For some of us, it’s making it through the day with all the briefs at work filed on time and all the briefs (or boxers) at home washed in a timely fashion.

In short, women need bar associations which support both the “woman” and the “lawyer” in each of us. The goal should be to pinpoint and provide services targeted to the unique needs, weaknesses and strengths of women lawyers. It’s true that we do have twice as much to do as the male attorneys we know. But do we have to do it ALL twice as well and with just as much testosterone? No. We as women attorneys do more of a service to ourselves, our families, our clients, and our profession by learning how to perfect that relatively new hybrid that is the woman attorney—with, of course, a little help from our friends. After all, as my six-year-old son said when asked if he wanted to be a lawyer when he grows up, “Being a lawyer is a girl’s job.”


About the author: Amie Sobkoviak is the Managing Attorney of Will County Legal Assistance Program, Inc. and president of the Will County Women’s Bar Association. She is the mother of two sons, age three and six.

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November 2003Volume 9Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)