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Women in the profession: Still changing the practice of law

By Stephanie Beougher
 
As the Ohio State Bar Association moves forward with accomplishing the recommendations of the Special Committee for the Review of Gender Fairness in the Ohio Legal System (see "Gender Fairness" article). While progress has been made, however, disparity still exists. The OSBA interviewed several women attorneys to get their views on gender fairness in the legal profession and what their law firms are doing to help women succeed in the profession.

Gender discrimination

Christi Perri has been a lawyer for a year, but it was her previous experience as a paralegal at a small law firm that opened her eyes to gender discrimination. “As an example, there were times when I was told that I wasn’t allowed in meetings because I was a woman and the male attorneys didn’t want me to ‘bring my emotions’ into the meeting. I had never faced sex discrimination before, or, if I did, it wasn’t as blatant.”
 
Judge Pat Morgenstern-Clarren, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Northern District of Ohio, began her legal career in the 1970s. She still sees some manifestations of gender bias in the courtroom. “I will occasionally see a male lawyer less than respectful to a female lawyer, but it usually only takes one comment from me to bring a stop to the behavior,” Morgenstern-Clarren said.
 
Virginia Conlan Whitman, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, knows how difficult the legal environment can be for some women. “In some environments, it’s hard for women to be taken seriously, and there’s a fine line to balance being a confident and assertive woman without being perceived as difficult. I think we need to look beyond any stereotypes we may still hold to see that all lawyers, regardless of gender, have an obligation to be assertive when advocating for clients.”

The work-life balancing act

Though the label “work-life balance” may be relatively new, the issue is not. Many parents and spouses, women and men alike, have struggled to find the balance that best suits them.
 
Amanda James’ youngest son, who is now four years old, was born while she was going to the University of Toledo Law School. She credits her family for getting her through the rigors of law school. James, an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County, considers herself lucky to have had understanding employers. “My bosses have been incredibly accommodating if one of the boys is sick, or something outside of work needs my attention. I know that is not always the case for other women.”
 
Marquettes Robinson knows that is not always the case. She recalled that a friend at another firm was told she must not be serious about partnership because she was pregnant again. Robinson is a partner at the Cleveland firm of Thacker Martinsek, a women-owned firm. “The partners have children ages eight and under, so they know what it’s like to be a working mom.” She added that working moms make strong contributions to the firm: “We just had someone come back from leave and pick up all her work, maybe even more.”
 
Columbus attorney Valoria Hoover feels prioritizing is key. She said, “There is no bigger priority than my family and my daughter. Can I be everything to her all the time? Maybe not, but to be a good role model, you prioritize. You can’t have everything all at once but you can have it in pieces.”
 
Difficulty in maintaining the balancing act between being a successful lawyer and spouse or mother can drive many women in the profession to re-evaluate their legal careers. Hope Sharett felt the pressures of home and work colliding after the birth of her daughter. “I realized it wasn’t just me with the problem, it was also attorneys who took care of their elderly parents or an ailing spouse.” Sharett’s current position as executive director of the Law and Leadership Institute affords her the opportunity to stay involved with the legal community in a non-traditional legal job.
 
Kathy Northern was working as a litigator at a law firm and trying to raise a child when the opportunity to teach presented itself. “I recognized that academia would give me a lot more control over my schedule than being a litigator—both in raising my son and thinking about additional children,” Northern said. “There is pressure as a professor to write and publish, which does not require any less time than if I’d stayed at a firm, but you have more control of your time and that is the biggest difference.” Northern joined the law faculty of Ohio Northern University before settling in to her current position at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. She has never regretted the decision to teach, and is often sought out by law students for career advice.
 
The move to non-traditional legal jobs can be seen in a positive light, according to Sally Bloomfield, a partner at Bricker & Eckler in Columbus. “Women today are looking more at their passion when choosing where to work, which is a choice I’m not sure in years past women felt as free to make,” she said.

The economics of inequality

The average law student debt jumped 50 percent between 2001 and 2010 to an average of $68,827 for public schools and $106,249 for private schools.1 Toledo attorney Stuart Cubbon served on the OSBA special committee, and he believes law school debt has a greater effect on female graduates. “Women are not making partner and they are not making as much money as men,” Cubbon said. “And because women are paying the same amount for law school and not earning the same wages, I see that as a big problem.”
 
The Economics of Law study conducted in 2010 for the Ohio State Bar Association found female attorneys in Ohio earn a median net income of $68,000, or 72 percent of the $95,000 male attorneys net.2 One factor may be the challenge women face in developing their client base. One of the usual ways to cultivate clients in the business world is on the golf course. Many of the women lawyers interviewed say most of their counterparts are not golfers. “There are women who like to play golf, but there are sporting events that men like to go to that women don’t,” Bloomfield said. “One change from 20 years ago is there are many more women clients who, generally, have to be wooed differently than male clients. I know of women attorneys who are having spa days and similar events that women clients enjoy."

Law firms address concerns

Law firms have implemented programs and policies to help cultivate nurturing environments for women. Marilena DiSilvio is one of the driving forces behind the Women’s Initiative at Reminger, a program founded in 2008 to provide mentoring, professional development and advancement opportunities. “We focus on each lawyer’s professional and personal growth, regardless of age,” DiSilvio said. “We want to encourage each woman in our firm to define her brand, to set personal and professional goals, and to build business networks.” The program held its first retreat this year, with female attorneys from the firm’s 11 offices located throughout the Midwest converging on Columbus to participate in day-long activities such as team-building and setting business development goals. DiSilvio adds there will be follow-up efforts with all the participants to develop committees and promote the program’s objective within the firm and the community. “While the idea for the initiative came from women, we have the support of the entire firm and Steve Walters, our managing partner. This is much more than just an opportunity for us to have a camaraderie session.”
 
Another example of a law firm addressing the concerns of female lawyers is the Women in Networking (WIN) Group at Bricker & Eckler in Columbus. Coordinator Anne Marie Sferra says WIN started out as a way for female attorneys to get to know each other better, and has evolved into community awareness charitable events, professional development workshops and mentoring. “There are so many different life and work-related pressures today. You have to be more deliberate with your career than those of us who started 25 years ago,” Sferra said. “We try to help our female attorneys connect their interests with community involvement and professional growth.”

Mentoring

Mentoring is not a new idea, but formalizing mentoring to assist women in the legal profession is relatively new. Amanda James participated in the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Lawyer to Lawyer mentoring program after becoming a new lawyer in 2010. “It’s nice to know someone who knows the area, the courts and the informal rules of how things work,” James said. “I had two mentors and both met with me more than the required amount, and helped me with the stressors that I hadn’t anticipated, like the first time I faced opposing counsel who was less than civil to me.” One of her mentors was Rosemary Rubin, who has served as a mentor since the program began. “It’s a great experience for me,” Rubin said. “There’s nothing like having someone you can sit What advice do you have for new female lawyers? www.ohiobar.org November/December 2012 Ohio Lawyer 17 down and bounce stuff off of. It’s a wonderful addition for the young lawyers.”
 
Conlan Whitman signed up for the mentoring program three years ago after hearing then-president of the OSBA Barbara Howard talk about mentoring. “She spoke about the mentoring program and how there was a need in southwest Ohio, particularly for women mentors. It’s great for young women to have female role models. I’ve learned so much from women during my career, and it’s been very rewarding to now help other women in their careers.”
 
The Ohio Women’s Bar Association (OWBA) is expanding its pilot program that matches female law students with mentors. The OWBA, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, has also implemented a leadership institute. “We are trying not only to help the profession, but also to broaden the thought processes and connections for women to become leaders in their communities,” OWBA Past President Valoria Hoover said.

Diversity

Minority representation in the legal profession has nearly flat-lined in the last several years. In Ohio law firms, minority women comprised less than six percent of the associate ranks, and the percentage of minority women partners dropped to less than one percent of the entire law firm partner pool.3 Minority student groups at law schools remained largely the same compared to 1995.4
 
To help boost those numbers, high school students from underserved areas of the state are getting a taste of the legal profession through the Law and Leadership Institute. While the main goal of the program is to create diversity in the legal profession, Director Hope Sharett has also seen it as an opportunity for minority females to think of themselves as lawyers. “In 2010, two-thirds of our students were female. If we’re talking about the group of people who are last in line in that progression to becoming owners of the practice, black women are still in the back. By encouraging young women of color to think about choosing a career in law, we’ll have a larger pool of those students entering law schools than we do now.”

The next 20 years

Will we still be talking about gender inequities in another 20 years? Most of the people interviewed agreed that inequality will still exist at some level. “It depends a lot on the society as a whole,” Ritchey Hollenbaugh, co-chair of the OSBA special committee said. “There will always be differences between men and women, and there will always be significant work-related issues.”
 
According to the committee’s other cochair, Melissa Graham-Hurd, “We need to remain vigilant in our law schools, courts, workplaces and bar associations. Thinking the problem has been solved closes our eyes to recognizing a problem exists and taking steps to address it.

Author bio
Stephanie Beougher is the Ohio State Bar Association communications and online media associate.

Endnotes
1 Debra Cassens Weiss, “Average Annual Law School Loan Jumped 50 Percent Since 2001.” Posted May 9, 2011 on ABA Journal.com at
www.abajournal.com/news/article/average_annual_law_school_loan_jumped_50_percent_since_2001/.
2 Ohio State Bar Association, “The Economics of Law Practice in Ohio” (2010). Pg. 21.
3 Ohio State Bar Association, “Report and Recommendations of the Special Committee to Review Gender Fairness in the Legal Profession.” Pg. 6.
4 Id. at pg. 5.

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