Member Groups

The Catalyst
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

May 2010, vol. 15, no. 3

ISBA celebrates women in the profession

On March 9, 2010, ISBA President John O’Brien hosted a luncheon entitled “Celebrating Women in the Profession: Reach Out and Build Our Future.” Hundreds of attorneys joined together at the Standard Club in Chicago to honor women who have advanced our profession. The Honorable Jane L. Stuart and the Honorable Susan F. Hutchinson were both presented with Presidential Commendations for their contributions to the legal profession. Barbara J. Howard, President of the Ohio State Bar Association gave the Keynote Address. With her generous permission, we are reprinting her address here.

It’s a real pleasure to be with you today. I want to thank ISBA President, John O’Brien, Annemarie Kill, Chair of the Celebrating Women in the Profession Planning Committee, and Sonni Williams, Chair of the Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law for taking the initiative to plan this luncheon and celebration of women in our profession, and for inviting me to celebrate with you. I also want to extend my congratulations to Justice Susan Hutchinson and Judge Jane Stuart. What wonderful role models you are for all of us.

There are so many positive contributions that we, as women, bring to our profession. One of those is our appreciation that we can accomplish so much more together than the sum of our individual efforts. In that vein, I really applaud your initiative in joining hands across all of your organizations—Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, Chicago Bar Association Alliance for Women, DuPage Association for Women Lawyers, East Central Illinois Women Attorneys Association, Will County Women’s Bar Association, Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, and the Women’s Bar Association of the Sixteenth Judicial District.

So, as we celebrate our present, we must recognize, respect and appreciate our past. Just the difference in the number of women in our profession is a cause for celebration. Had an event such as this been held 30 years ago, even if all the women lawyers in the Chicago area had attended, there would be only a fraction of the number who are here today. Though this change is encouraging, those women who were members of our profession 30 and more years ago, are the ones who made it possible for the rest of us to be here today.

Hopefully, most of you were not the trailblazers, though, certainly Justice Hutchinson and Judge Stuart are among that most notable group of women in the law. While I was fortunate to have a handful of women who led the way and opened doors for me in Cincinnati, in Ohio and in the ABA, still, I, as the others, have all experienced discrimination along the way. Some of us have dealt with it far more often than others. Most times, I’d like to think that those acts of discrimination were not intentional, or more likely, misguided and uninformed. Some, however, were downright deliberate.

I can think of two instances where I was singled out for discriminatory treatment because I was a woman. In the first situation, I was in my third year of law school, interviewing for an associate’s position at a law firm of 10-12 lawyers. I would have been their first woman lawyer. I had had three interviews. I was very optimistic, thinking that if they were taking the time to have me in that many times, a job offer was imminent. And it was—but with one huge catch. The firm said it could not extend an offer to me until it met my husband!!

My first thought was, “What on earth does my husband have to do with me getting a job offer from you?” It’s not like he was a lawyer or would have anything to do with my work. I simultaneously wondered if this firm would place that same pre-condition on a male. I instantly knew the answer to that—not in a million years. I also had to believe that part of the reason they wanted to meet him was to see what he had to say about us having children. There was little doubt in my mind that they were afraid I would get pregnant, quit work and become a stay-at-home mom. So, I wondered, how should I handle this?

Now, as fate would have it, two things happened that resolved my dilemma for me. The first is that another firm with whom I had been interviewing made me an offer and needed an answer by the end of the week. The other was that my husband, who worked in sales, was out of town for the balance of the week. So, it was impossible for this firm to be able to meet my husband—even if I had agreed to that pre-condition—by the time I needed to give the other firm an answer.

I took the job with the other firm. As we all know, sometimes big cities are small places. The two firms where I had interviewed shared a floor in the same office building for the next 11 years. So, for 11 years, those men who wouldn’t hire me without meeting my husband, who thought I would quit work and leave the profession, saw me day in and day out, coming to work and representing clients, just like them. A few years later, that firm hired its first woman, and since has continued to hire women. I trust they learned a lesson from me, and that the women who followed did not face the barriers that I had.

So, how was life as a women lawyer in private practice back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s? Again, I’m sure Judge Stuart and Justice Hutchinson undoubtedly have more stories to tell than I, and perhaps some that better demonstrate the discrimination we all faced. Perhaps the one that sticks is my mind occurred after I had been in practice just a few years.

I was working on a civil litigation matter with one of the younger partners in my firm. He had asked me to sit in while opposing counsel—a former justice of the Ohio Supreme Court—looked over the documents we were providing in response to a discovery request. This went on the better part of a day and the following morning. That afternoon, my partner came back from lunch and walked into my office. He told me that he had run into opposing counsel at the restaurant. Opposing counsel said to my partner something to the effect that I really had no business practicing law, that I was taking the place of a man who needed a job, and that I should be at home raising my children. (Never mind that I didn’t have any children!!)

It’s what my partner told me was his response that impressed me as much as opposing counsel’s statement hurt me. My partner told opposing counsel that he was talking to the wrong lawyer, because his wife was also a lawyer, and a very good one at that. He told opposing counsel that I had every bit as much right to practice law as the next guy, and that he wholeheartedly supported having women in the profession.

So, what are the lessons I have learned from my early years in practice? First and foremost is that we should never presume that those who are intelligent are also enlightened. Our profession was, and to a large degree, still is a male-dominated profession. It’s not just because there are more men than women, but because male-centered attitudes and approaches have long been the cornerstone of the practice of law.

The second, however, is that many of our male colleagues really do “get it”. People like my former partner, people like John O’Brien. They do understand and appreciate the significantly greater hurdles that we must overcome as women to succeed in this still male-dominated profession.

The key is to recognize these men as our friends in the law and in the practice. Many of them are willing to open doors for us, to mentor us, and even to help us fight the fight against discrimination. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a lawyer is a man, that he at worst discriminates against women, or at best, is totally oblivious to the plight of women lawyers. Get to know those men who are our allies and accept their genuine efforts to help us overcome the discrimination we still face.

That takes me to my third lesson learned. While there is no doubt that the kinds of blatant discrimination that we faced 30 years ago are no longer present to any significant degree today, discrimination against women in the law has taken on a much more subtle and sophisticated face. Let me give you some examples.

In the mid-‘90s, the OSBA and the Ohio Supreme Court convened a Gender Fairness Task Force to examine the status of women in the profession, especially issues of discrimination, and to make findings and recommendations as to how to address those findings. The Task Force took an in-depth look in 14 different areas of the legal profession. It made a number of recommendations as part of its final report.

Some of those recommendations were implemented, including gender-neutral language in law books and statutes, more flexible law firm working environments, and a new practice rule prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. However, a good number of the recommendations never made it off the shelf.

When I became President-Elect in 2008, I decided that it was time to dust of that report and find out what recommendations had never been implemented, and to see what new issues were facing the women at the bar. Thus, was created the OSBA’s Gender Fairness Task Force II. We have hired a consulting group to help us do both a side-by-side comparison with the findings from the first task force, as well as examine new issues that have surfaced over the intervening 15+ years. This latest task force has focused its efforts in 4 areas of the law -- private practice, courts, bar associations and law schools.

Here are some of the findings:

• The percentage of men (57%) and women (43%) in Ohio’s 9 law schools is virtually unchanged from the 1995 statistics.

• Men currently comprise 63% and women 37% of Ohio’s law schools’ faculty—comparable to the national average.

• In 1993, only 14.8% of Ohio’s judges were women; today that number is 25.3%.

• In Ohio, the percentages of men (70%) and women (30%) who are actively registered is also the same for those who are on inactive status, a rather surprising statistic when you think about the far greater number of men who are at or near retirement.

• In 1999, women comprised 15.04% of all law firm partners nationally; in 2009, women represent 19.21% of law firm partners.

• In 1999, women made up 41.39% of the associates ranks in law firms across the country; in 2009, women represent 45.66% of the associates.

• Women currently comprise 32.9% of the legal profession, yet women make up 61.1% of accountants and auditors, 37.4% of chief executives and 46.7% of the civilian labor force.

• The US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008 analysis found that women lawyers earn only 80.5% of what our male counterparts earn.

• The National Association of Women Lawyers survey found that in 2008, women equity partners made $87,000 less than male equity partners. In 2009, that differential was $66,000.

• A particularly disturbing finding was that 37% of the women lawyers who responded to the survey said they were childless, as compared with the national average for all women of 20.4% and of 27.4% among women with a graduate or professional degree.

• Another is that 25% of those surveyed said that they were dissatisfied with their career path.

To my earlier point that today’s discrimination is much more subtle, the consultants found the following:

• More than 74% of the men said they have not observed gender discrimination in the workplace, while 55.9% of the women said they had experienced such discrimination.

• Women, by a 3-to-1 margin say they believe it is easier for men to practice law then it is for women.

• When asked whether gender fairness is less an issue in society today than it was 20 years ago, 78.8% of the men agreed, while only 47.9% of the women did.

• In response to the proposition that if you are a competent attorney, gender differences are less of an issue, 72.9% of men agreed, but only 44.2% of women.

• When asked whether women have the same opportunity for promotion and advancement as men, 50% of the men agreed, but only 11.1% of the women.

• Finally, 49.9% of men agreed that in most law firms, women can expect to be treated the same as men when it comes to pay and compensation. Not surprisingly, only 14.2% of the women agreed with that statement.

Our consultants also conducted several focus groups in 3 of the law schools. What they learned there is frankly more discouraging than the statistics I’ve just recited. For example:

• Almost every woman law student expected to encounter gender inequity when they graduate.

• They know that having children is a deterrent from making equity partner.

• One student recounted that when being interviewed by a male attorney who saw her engagement ring, he asked her how many children she planned to have and whether she would be taking leave. Since she wanted the job, she knew she couldn’t do anything about his questions.

• A law school professor observed that “Men don’t see discrimination in the work place, because they are still hiring women and they see women in the workplace every day. It’s hidden, like race discrimination.”

Indeed, minority women lawyers really do continue to face discrimination on both fronts. All of the statistics from the Ohio State Bar surveys found much less advancement for minority women within the ranks of our profession. One of its many findings in this area was that 49.7% of the men who responded agreed that for minority women, the legal profession is one place where diversity is practiced and the obstacles of race and gender are reduced. Yet, only 14.7% of the women agreed with that statement.

So, is all doom and gloom? Do we have any hope of achieving equality within our profession? Are we in this alone or do we have allies?

Call me the eternal optimist. I think it’s fair to say that while women have not realized the progress in numbers and equality within the profession as we had hoped would happen over the last 10-20 years, we have nonetheless made modest advances. We are continuing to increase our numbers in the ranks of judges and managing partners of law firms. We are slowly but surely closing the gap in income differentials. Many of us are doing that by opening our own practices where we can control how compensation is determined. Additionally, clients are realizing the benefits of hiring law firms whose attorneys more closely reflect the population of our communities.

I think it’s also fair to say that we have succeeded in beginning to change the mindset of our male colleagues, who are coming to appreciate and respect our role in the legal profession, and to support our ability to do so on par with them. Consider the following findings from the OSBA survey:

• 49.7% of men (compared to 60.5% of women) agree that law firms should make accommodations for women who want to take time away from their career to start a family.

• 36.1% of men (compared to 48.1% of women) agree that diversity means we should strive to make the composition of the legal profession look more like the population we serve [NOTE: I think this shows we still have much work to do in this area among our sisters!!]

• 40.3% of men (compared to 41.9% of women) agree that law schools play a critical role in determining whether the legal profession is successful or unsuccessful in achieving its gender and diversity objectives.

• 30.5% of men (compared to 37.1% of women) agree that one of the best ways for women to advance their interests in the legal system is at the ballot box; that electing more women as judges and prosecutors will bring greater positive focus on women in the practice of law.

• 84.8% of men (compared to 75% of women) believe that in private firms, the partner track for men and women should be the same.

So, yes, I do think we have cause to be optimistic. If I were to summarize where we are, I would say that we have made good strides in getting men to talk the talk. The problem is that they think they are walking the walk, when really, they’re still crawling. What more can we do to eliminate gender discrimination in the law?

Don’t sweep instances of discrimination under the rug. If you feel that you can’t do something personally because it might jeopardize your job or position, find another person who can deal with it, whether it be another lawyer in your firm, a colleague or someone in your bar association.

Encourage and celebrate good practices. Today’s event is a fabulous example. The more publicity we give to the accomplishments of our sisters at the bar, the more likely we are to be noticed, not just by the men, but by the public we serve.

Continue to work harder than your male counterparts. This has been our hallmark since we entered the profession, and now is no time to stop.

Always practice with professionalism and fairness. It is incumbent on us to treat others the way we want to be treated.

Watch each other’s backs. Even (or maybe especially) if the woman who is receiving poor treatment is your opposing counsel, take the initiative to come to her rescue when a judge or your co-counsel is making discriminatory remarks or treating her adversely because she is a women.

If you aren’t active in a bar association, become so. If you are active, stay active. Bar associations have played a major role in eliminating discrimination in the practice of law and in supporting women’s efforts. This is true, not only of women’s bar associations, but most all associations. It is bar associations, from local to state to national, that have highlighted women’s issues, have promoted women in the law, who have allowed women to be leaders, and who have been at the forefront of changing the culture of the practice.

Women have an advantage in that we have always seen the value in working together in a group, rather than as individuals. We gain strength, power and visibility when we use our networking and consensus-building skills to advance our cause. Women have made ours a better, more enlightened, and more caring profession. It is most fitting that we take the time to celebrate our accomplishments. Thank you so much for inviting me to celebrate with you. ■