Gender Equality and the Practice of Law

Vol. 16 No. 9

By

On Friday, May 4, 2012, American Bar Association (ABA) President-Elect Laurel Bellows held the second Town Hall Meeting on Gender Equality in connection with the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) at its spring meeting in Nashville, TN. In addition to Ms. Bellows, YLD Chair Michael Bergmann appeared on the panel, as well as YLD Speaker of the Assembly Latanisha Watters, and Ms. JD President Katherine Larkin-Wong.

The first question asked of the audience was how many considered the profession of law in their personal lives when they started law school and how people had been affected by practice of law. After 85 percent of the audience responded, “yes, the practice of law affected their personal lives,” the discussion then moved to how the ABA could help the upcoming law school graduates matriculate into practice in both their professional and personal lives. One important point made was that practitioners not only need to have a very frank and open discussion about the challenges and changes to their personal lives the practice of law has had but also the positive impact the law has had. Because many people are matriculating straight from high school to college to law school, it is important to have the discussion early on to fully prepare people for these transitions. In addition, transparency is just as important for this information as it is for law school loan data.

Next, the panel discussed the difference between a “mentor” and a “sponsor.” According to the room discussion, a mentor teaches you the unwritten rules, and a sponsor talks about you to another partner while you are not in the room. Ninety percent of the audience responded that they had a mentor, while only 10 percent responded that they had a sponsor. Attorneys of color stated that it was important to them to have mentors and sponsors who were also diverse. This influenced whether they would join a firm/organization and whether they would stay there.

An interesting point was made, and echoed by several people, that discrimination is often not recognized by people until it is pointed out to them by the people who are being discriminated against. One example was given where a gentleman had a female colleague who repeatedly made suggestions that were overlooked. These suggestions were later applauded when made by a male colleague. This was only brought to the speaker’s attention when the female colleague pointed it out. A recommendation to resolve this situation in a non-confrontational manner was to affirm the female colleague’s suggestion the first time around, and again, if necessary, after the male colleague made it. Moreover, another example of discrimination that had been overlooked was a woman who stated that she had not realized until years into her career that opportunities had been going to other white men instead of her. Now, she is more experienced and realizes that opportunities should be going to her.

Furthermore, an audience member relayed a story about his wife, who was also an attorney and had taken parental leave to have children. Upon return to her firm, she found that she was not receiving the same type of assignments anymore. She believed it was because she was working part-time. His point, however, was that this change in treatment was not because she was a woman, but because she was working part-time. Interestingly, one of the earlier questions from the panel was the difference in perception between a male and female attorney with children. The response was that the man is perceived as a “family man who is dependable and committed,” while the woman is perceived as “a woman with children who is conflicted and stressed.”

            Ms. Bellows stated that she has two fears for gender equality in the practice of law in the next 10 years: 1.) female economic independence; and 2.) that the field will consist primarily of men if women continue to opt-out. She challenged the audience to put forth their ideas on how to change their offices, the legal profession, the ABA, the YLD. She asked what would the audience do to change the country even outside the legal profession and pay equality.

            One thing was clear coming out of this Town Hall: There are multiple ways to approach gender equality and multiple issues remaining on which much work needs to be done by all of us. Are you seeing the issues around you? What do you wish you could change to advance gender equality? What will you do to advance gender equality?

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