Volume 20, Number 1
Jan/Feb 2003


From the Editor

Our Genders, Ourselves

By jennifer j. rose

Every year during the American Bar Association's Annual Meeting, the Commission on Women in the Profession hosts the Margaret Brent Awards luncheon, honoring the most exclusive sorority of women lawyers and judges. These women are the trailblazers, pioneers, and revolutionaries of the professions, and they justly deserve every bit of credit for making lives and the law better. But there are just as many women out there, practicing law in the trenches, serving humankind creditably, who will never be among the 1,200 or so attending the Margaret Brent Awards luncheon, who may never have even heard of Margaret Brent, and who view their roles as practicing lawyers no differently than their brethren at the bar.

I'm going to be honest. While I was growing up in Southern California, the first woman lawyer I knew was Mrs. B., a friend's mother, who went to law school in the late 1960s in the hope that she could support herself after a divorce. She had no grand ambitions other than putting a little more food on the table than a teacher's salary, the traditional woman's safety net back then, would provide. If I had an early role model, it was Mrs. B. Her political agenda was fully as broad as Donna Reed's.

I entered law school in 1973-the year of the great boom in women's admissions to law school. There were not many women in my law school class, and we weren't really sure how we were supposed to act. Were we supposed to be champions of the nascent field of women's rights, were we supposed to head toward the traditional areas of "women's work" like tax and family law, or were we free to do anything we wanted? The most successful woman in my class did the decidedly uncool act of baking cookies the night before finals to relax and unwind. We laughed at her Harriet Nelson interlude, but she was the first to make partner in an AV-rated law firm.

We were driven by the idea that we were supposed to do something important, or at least socially meaningful, with our legal educations. Whether we were supposed to follow the dialectic of Shulamith Firestone or Phyllis Schlafly, many of us weren't exactly sure. There were those who knew right away which route to take, there were those who wandered down undefined paths, and there were those for whom the baby boom's prosperity meant little more than the upper-class version of a teaching certificate-a profession, of course, and not a bad way to earn a decent living.
My generation of women lawyers wasn't even sure what we were supposed to wear. For the men, "dressing like a lawyer" was easy. Did we really have to wear one of those "dress for success" suits with the little floppy ties, could we wear pants, or could we dare to wear a red dress and high heels to court?
"The law is a jealous mistress" was drummed into our heads, even if we were looking for lives at a time when being a woman lawyer and having a life were not supposed to mix. Women riding on the highest plains of success were applauded for giving their lives entirely over to the practice of law. The mark of a truly dedicated woman lawyer was to spend all but the final hour of childbirth cross-examining a feral witness. Many yielded to those demands, some tried to have it all, and some questioned, demanded, and carved out private lives.

Women lawyers-and men-may have more freedom today to do as they please than ever before. But do they exercise that freedom? Reduced and flexible schedules, part-time work, and family and extended leave all sound great on paper, but they can impede professional progress for many who labor in large firms. The ability to carve out one's own agenda may explain why many women leave the law factory for solo and small firm practice-or leave the practice entirely. A lawyer who quits her practice to be a full-time stay-at-home mother now has the freedom to do so, without apology to anyone. It's a matter of choice. And in many settings, even men who leave the office early to carve Halloween pumpkins with their children are looked upon as caring, sensitive individuals.

The incursion of women into the legal profession did more than simply change the playing field. It changed the foci of practicing law. Sexual harassment has existed throughout the ages, but changes in the law made it actionable. The differences between men and women spelled new avenues of and approaches to practice, from setting up women in business, advocating for breast cancer patients, and rainmaking and communication styles.

The women who make up the ABA Commission on Women and those who've been honored with the Margaret Brent Award are the dragon slayers, heroines, and power players of the profession. These women are the risk takers and adventurers. They're not the ordinary lot of lawyers, but what they've done for the ordinary rank-and-file lawyer, even the lawyer laboring on the ground floor whose glass ceiling is simply opaque, is immeasurable. They've given Jane and Joe Lawyer choices that we didn't have before.

This issue of GPSolo isn't just a women's issue. It's as much for those lawyers who have female clients; female partners, associates, and staff; and even female relatives. This issue has brought together, through the fine efforts of issue editor John Macy, the fruits and viewpoints of a broad range of the profession's best and brightest.

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