General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine
Volume 17, Number 3
The Chair's Corner
The Best Progress
SHARON C. STEVENS
Rarely do I think about the fact that I am a woman in what used to be nearly exclusively a man's profession. Since I have been practicing law for more than 20 years, one can surely imagine that this was not always the case. Perusing the recently published Goal IX Update, the annual report of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, I was moved to reflect on my experiences.
Raised in a small community in Washington State, there was only a single woman attorney in the two towns that comprised this community. I never met her, which is not surprising given the lack of encouragement from friends, family, or even the educational community for my "untraditional" career choice. There was slightly more encouragement at Washington State University, but at the time I took the LSAT, the large auditorium contained only one other woman.
Of the 350 students in my first year class at a California law school, only 20 were women. We were treated the same by the male law students and our professors and we had women's restrooms, although the bathroom in our law review home was unisex. There was much more interest in my personal life and my wardrobe, however, than in my professional aspirations.
Law school was egalitarian compared to my early years of practice. "But I AM an attorney," was my most constant refrain as the first woman in private practice in Linn County, Oregon. Most phone callers who were routed to me-either current or prospective clients-declared that they "wanted to speak to an attorney." I was frequently mistaken to be a secretary. Corrections officers would not admit me to the jail to see clients. Judicial assistants wanted me to leave orders in the front office, since "only attorneys can take ex parte orders into the judge for signature."
The seven male lawyers in my firm were great, however, even if they were not always sure of the protocol. With a collective 100+ years of experience, the senior partners provided a wonderful education. Yet I'll never forget the advice from one of them after I complained about having to go to the Court of Appeals with neither the law nor the facts on our side. My mentor advised, "When all else fails, show a little leg."
Life as a Deputy District Attorney in a slightly larger Oregon county should have been easier, and in many respects it was. Although our numbers were still few, there were other women prosecutors in the office. The case assignments were equal and the public was accepting. But women lawyers were still few in number in 1980 in my county, in both public and practice settings, and the "good old boy" system flourished. It was that system that made the judge think he was entitled to see my tan lines or the sheriff's deputy think he could steal kisses in the elevator. Both of those situations were handled with humor, but I was flabbergasted nonetheless.
These events all occurred in the late 1970s or the early 1980s. Things have changed since then! Women are entering law school and the profession in large numbers-it's considered the norm, not the exception. Women are respected members of their profession and their communities and are attaining leadership in both. Women lawyers are no longer a novelty.
According to the Goal IX Update, women represent 28.5 percent of the profession. While our numbers in the population are far greater, this figure is encouraging nonetheless. Equally as important for women in the legal profession today is the lack of constraints on the nature of our practices. Women lawyers are no longer shunted toward working in the public sector, or in private practice areas deemed "appropriate" for women. Women lawyers may choose to practice in those substantive areas or in the public section, but it IS a choice, and that is really what equality in the profession means.
At a time when women were unique in the profession, "quality of live" and the balance between career and family were issues unique to women. Today, just as many male colleagues share these concerns and do as much juggling.
Women in the profession are not unique anymore; we are not a novelty or a curiosity. While being "the first woman" to achieve or do something 20, ten, or even five years ago was a cause celebre, that is no longer the case. Perhaps this is the most telling indicator of where women are in the profession. Women are simply lawyers...or bar leaders...or community leaders, serving our clients, professional associations, and communities without any special mission except being the best we can be. That is the best progress.