Volume 20, Number 1
Jan/Feb 2003


Perspectives on a Changing Profession


Competence Is Not Gender Specific

By Florencio (Larry) Ramirez

The increasing number of women practicing law has had a tremendous impact on the legal profession. If nothing else, the profession has become more aware of the particular issues affecting women lawyers and women in general. Gender equity, job sharing, equal pay and promotion, sexual harassment, and working conditions in general have all come to the forefront as issues affecting women. As a consequence, men have also benefited from this heightened awareness and flexibility. Stereotypes, like those that made it difficult for society to accept a man's staying home to care for his children or assuming the role of homemaker, have diminished. Laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace are gender neutral, which makes it easier for men to assume roles traditionally reserved for women, e.g., through the Family Medical Leave Act. After all, equal does mean equal, doesn't it?

Perceptions have also changed. In the past, women lawyers were relegated to an office practice, e.g., real estate, probate, appellate practice, and perhaps domestic relations. Women are no longer viewed as the "weaker sex," relegated to practicing in the less stressful and demanding areas of the law because "they might get pregnant, you know." Now, some of the most heralded and respected trial lawyers in this country are women. Yet we still have a way to go. Not all perceptions, biases, and beliefs have changed, and that is not entirely the fault of the men in the profession.

As a partner in a law firm, I had occasion to help train and mentor female associates, primarily in trial practice. Many of these young women felt that they had to "prove" that they were just as good as male lawyers. Additionally, many felt that in order to be considered equal, they had to exhibit the same aggressiveness (and many times boor- ishness) of their male counterparts. My advice was always the same: Be yourself, don't try to be someone else. Being a good lawyer doesn't mean that you have to be more aggressive, or louder, or talk faster than your opponent. Be prepared, be credible, and be professional. That's what makes a good lawyer.

As a judge, I am privileged to have many excellent lawyers practice in my court. I am very pleased to have female and male lawyers of different personalities, temperaments, and abilities appear before me. Again, competence is not specific to gender. The only difference that I have truly noted is that the women who appear in my court tend to be more persistent. They want to continue to argue after I have ruled. Does it have something to do with not being able to take no for an answer? In reality, I believe that the obstacles to complete acceptance of females as equals lie in the male ego and female insecurities. When we start emphasizing and exploring our differences rather than our similarities as professionals, the gap widens.

For the most part, however, there is less and less emphasis on the differences between men and women lawyers. I truly don't even think about it. Whether you are a man or a woman doesn't make a whit's bit of difference in terms of the strength of your case, factually or legally. We are all here to do a job, and I simply expect the lawyers to do theirs.

Where Do All the Women Go?

By Wynn Gunderson

The addition of women to the traditionally male practice of law has been a very positive experience. I believe women tend to be more organized, more efficient, and-yes-more hard working than their male counterparts. We have many talented women lawyers practicing throughout South Dakota, and they have distinguished themselves in many ways, in the courtroom and out.

I've practiced law in Rapid City for 31 years. In the early years of my practice, there were no women lawyers in Rapid City, but that has changed. Currently, the local bar has 312 members, 20 percent (64) of whom are women. Thirty-four of them actively practice law-22 for ten years or more. These numbers seem to be fairly consistent throughout the state and, I would assume, nationwide. For example, the state bar association has 1,628 members. Twenty-three percent are female (374), and 191 of them are in private law practice. Although there's been an 8 percent increase in the number of women admitted to practice in the state between 1995 and 2002, attrition may more than offset any long-term growth. Female law students in the third year at the University of South Dakota School of Law make up 50 percent of the class, but too many of them may not end up practicing law. If they do, for some reason their stay is relatively brief.

A number of exceptional women lawyers have entered law practice in Rapid City, only to leave after a few years. Of course, many left for family reasons-which indicates that nontraditional practice opportunities were not available to them. Some left because they, like many men, didn't enjoy practicing. Much needs to be done to correct this phenomenon, because it is a tremendous waste of resources and talent. And the dissatisfaction may be spreading: Women make up only 38 percent of this year's 1L class at the U.S.D. law school-a 12 percent drop from the previous two years.

I'm troubled by this high attrition rate because it seems to affect women disproportionately. Women come into practice, demonstrate great ability and aptitude in the law, and then disappear after a brief exposure to practice. I believe the problem is sufficiently acute to warrant further study. We need to take whatever steps are necessary to stem the retreating tide, whether it be developing more alternative approaches to traditional practice or refining how we practice-to name just two remedies-to allow for greater flexibility in practice for women lawyers. I strongly believe we need not only to retain women lawyers but also to increase their number, because their contribution to the profession is vital.


Equals Among Equals

By John Phipps

I grew up in a family with strong women and men who valued such strength. As a result, there has never been any question in my mind about equal rights or the right and potential of women to excel in the workplace. I grew up believing that women can and should have equal opportunities to be lawyers-or anything else they choose to be.
In the fall of 1962 when I entered law school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we had only three women in a class of 110 law students. Although a couple of professors commented that women shouldn't be in law school, I don't recall that my female classmates received different treatment; we were all put on the hot seat and tormented on a regular basis. Of the three who started in my class, one dropped out, one is a successful private practitioner, and the other is a retired U.S. attorney who had an extremely successful career as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office. Today, the University of Illinois law school entering class size is about 250, more than twice the size of my class. Instead of only three women, the class is now nearly 45 percent women, which means there are more women in the current class than there were students in my class.
There also were very few women lawyers when I first started practicing law. I observed that gender bias was clearly apparent in the actions and comments of a number lawyers and a few judges in various Illinois courts. An "old boys" club clearly existed, and it was threatened by the upstart women lawyers. Discrimination against female lawyers existed regarding job opportunities; in order for women lawyers to succeed, they had to be smarter, sharper, and work harder to get the same treatment and respect the male lawyers got. Fortunately, the pioneer women lawyers not only met such challenges, they also persevered.
In recent years, since the entry of a large number of women lawyers into the practice, opportunities for women lawyers have grown to a level similar to that of their male counterparts.
The ABA and the Illinois state bar both have made a concerted effort to recruit women lawyers and put them in positions of responsibility; both have had women presidents. Women's bar groups continue to work to get equal treatment for women throughout the bar and to remove all remaining barriers.

Although civility in the profession has generally decreased through the years, I believe the presence of women lawyers has kept it from getting worse. I also think women lawyers generally contribute a more pleasant and human approach to law, compared to the strict business approach of many male lawyers. (Woe, however, to the lawyer who mistakes a woman's more pleasant approach to a case as a sign of weakness.) Another benefit is that women have brought to the bar a greater sensitivity to the interpersonal issues in cases, leading to more balanced legal services. The presence of women also tends to take some of the harshness out of what we do in the practice. I believe we are all better for the qualities women bring to our profession.

Forty years after I started law school, women by and large stand on more equal footing with men. The kind of discrimination that I saw in my early practice no longer exists in the courts in Illinois. Unfortunately, subtle gender bias still exists, and glass ceilings and other barriers still remain to be overcome.

As the father of a woman lawyer, I am very proud of her accomplishments. I celebrate the changes that have occurred in our profession that have provided her the opportunity to be successful and make a meaningful contribution to her clients, her community, and her profession. I am hopeful that sometime in the near future there will be no need for a "women's bar association" because the discriminatory and special issues women face will have been resolved. I look forward to the time when the question "How many women are members of the bar?" is no longer relevant, and the question becomes
simply "How many lawyers are in the bar?"


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