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Vol. 32, No. 5

Opening the door: Today’s wave of female bar presidents

by Robert J. Derocher

From the largest of mandatory and voluntary state bar associations in California and New York, to local bars in Connecticut, Minnesota, and other locales, history is being made: For the first time, these bars are seeing or will soon see back-to-back women bar presidents.

Why is that an important milestone to note? When it comes to gender and bar leadership, aren’t we at a point by now where it’s no longer necessary to celebrate “firsts” or “back-to-backs”? Not quite, some say.

“I’ve found that in many respects, bar associations and the organized bar might be a bit more open to women in leadership. That doesn’t mean [women] are there yet,” says Pamela Roberts, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. “While some pipelines are established and making good headway, there are also pockets that are not."

The challenge, Roberts and others say, is not only to maintain and build upon that momentum in associations that do have established pipelines, but also to spread the gender-equality gospel to other bars, law firms, and other organizations where such equity between men and women does not fully exist.

While obstacles will likely remain, many bar leaders are confident that the variety of actions that they and others have taken from providing better networking opportunities to establishing dedicated committees and task forces will lead to more and better leadership opportunities for women lawyers. The intent and the hope, they say, is to make sure that today’s equality milestones provide the foundation for tomorrow’s gender-transparent bar and legal community leadership.

Reaching critical mass

To be sure, times have been changing at bar associations and in the law, as they have in many other areas over the last several decades. Demographics and career choice, for example, are powerful forces.

In 1980, 8 percent of all licensed lawyers were women, according to ABA statistics. By 2000, that number had more than tripled to 27 percent. Evelyn Sullivan was seeing similar increases at the Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association in the early 1990s when, as executive director, she broached the topic of a woman president with the bar’s executive board.

“It was something I did with great trepidation, but the chairman was extremely supportive,” she says, and in 1993, Caroline Hoffer became the bar’s first woman president. “Now, we don’t even think of it. Though we haven’t had any [women presidents] recently, there are several candidates on the horizon."

A trip along the Atlantic Seaboard today provides a snapshot of just how far women have advanced in bar leadership. Elizabeth McGeever of Delaware, Alison Asti of Maryland, Lynn Fontaine Newsome of New Jersey, and Kathryn Grant Madigan of New York state represent four of the six bar presidents in the Mid-Atlantic Bar Conference. While Madigan jokingly calls the quartet “the MAC divas,” having four women in the conference simultaneously is unprecedented, as well as an indication of how far women bar leaders have come, she says.

“I think we’re reaching a critical mass. We have 29 women bar presidents in New York state [local and specialty bars],” she says. “I think we’ve moved past the point of saying, ‘Gee, do you think we’re ready to have another woman bar president?’ "

Still, the New York State Bar Association, the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the Maryland State Bar Association will all make history this May and June, when those women presidents will be succeeded by women a first-time event for all three bars.

“When I first joined the bar [more than 25 years ago], I was sometimes the only woman on a committee,” recalls NJSBA President Lynn Fontaine Newsome. “Overall, there is greater diversity, but more work needs to be done."

Not far away in Connecticut, local and state bar leaders took notice of the progress of women bar leaders earlier this year when a reception was held to mark the occasion of a record seven women simultaneously sitting as bar presidents at local and specialty bars.

“I think you’ll see things becoming pretty equal among men and women [as bar presidents] going forward,” says Lori Alexander, president of the New Haven County (Conn.) Bar Association. In another first, she is being succeeded by a woman, Jane Milas.

In Maryland, Asti is just the fourth woman president in the 115-year history of the MSBA. Katherine Kelly Howard will become the fifth when she succeeds Asti.

The event isn’t being treated with much fanfare in Maryland, which Asti says is itself a sign of progress. “No one is saying, ‘Wow, two women in a row,’” she notes. “That’s a testament to the success of women."

Building the pipeline

Dedicated bar association work, changing demographics, shifting family values, surveys, mentoring all those factors, and others, have played prominent roles in the success that many women lawyers have had in achieving bar leadership responsibilities, as well as in the success that many bars have had in drawing more women to those positions.

“If you don’t have a diversity committee, create one. Then put the leaders of the bar association on that committee,” advises Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a past Boston Bar Association president and executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success in Framingham, Mass.

A member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and author of Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law, Rikleen says there is still work to be done, and that bars need to create an organizational focus around gender equality that extends to section and committee heads, task forces, and CLE offerings.

“At the Boston bar, we started with a diversity committee, and now diversity is part of the fabric of all of the organization,” she says. “It requires bar leaders to really pay attention to how bar leaders are developed.” The BBA’s 23-member governing council currently consists of 11 women, two of whom are Asian American and one who is African American.

An important way that such women leaders are developed at many bars is by giving more women opportunities to head up key bar committees, sections, and task forces, Rikleen and others say. “That’s where you develop leadership and skill-building,” she notes.

Over the last two decades at the Lancaster bar, Sullivan has seen two top groups the Nominating Committee and the Board of Directors go from virtually all-male membership to a regular 50/50 gender split.

“I’ve appointed a lot of women committee chairs,” adds the MSBA’s Asti, “because I care about the pipeline."

The path to the top

Asti’s ascension to the MSBA presidency mirrors a path that many woman bar leaders have taken. She was president of the Baltimore Women’s Bar and the Bar Association of Baltimore City before becoming MSBA president. “I’m a bar junkie, so it’s been a natural progression,” she says.

El Paso (Texas) Bar Association Executive Director Nancy Gallego says her 650-member bar regularly co-sponsors programs with smaller specialty bars, often with the hope of attracting more diverse leadership to her bar. Current president-elect Cori Harbour honed her leadership skills as president of the El Paso Women’s Bar and the El Paso Young Lawyers Association. The presidents of those bars and of the Mexican American Bar Association of El Paso are ex officio members of the El Paso bar’s Board of Directors.

“With the leadership positions in the specialty bar associations more often being filled by women, there is a natural transition for leading the ‘big bar,’ ” says Harbour, who, at 37, is set to become the youngest-ever president of the El Paso bar. “In the last few years, women have increasingly been considered for the officer track, and I am hopeful the trend will continue."

Barb Howard says her experience as president of the Cincinnati Bar Association in 2001-02, along with her extensive work at the Ohio State Bar Association, helped lay the groundwork for her to become president-elect of the OSBA later this year.

“It was a great way to learn about bar association work, and as president of a metro bar, you get to know the other metro bar presidents,” she says.

In Connecticut, the New Haven Women Attorneys is an active group within the New Haven bar that has increased the visibility of women leaders over the last several years, according to the bar’s executive director, Carolyn Witt.

Another way that bars can bring more diversity to the leadership, according to Roberts, is to add governing board seats that are reserved for women. “There are some concerns about [the fairness of] that,” she notes, “but frankly, I think you need to get the different voices to the table first."

The “old boy network” is alive and well at many bars, Roberts adds, and the golf course remains one of those bastions of male networking that shuts out many women. Bars need to provide more continuing legal education and networking opportunities that can involve men and women, she believes.

“Advancement still depends on those informal exchanges that help build allegiances or to seek leadership opportunities,” she explains. “There is still a need for forums to give women a chance to interact."

The New York state bar, in addition to having 12 “diversity seats” in its House of Delegates and two such seats on its Executive Committee, holds regular diversity receptions throughout the state, often in conjunction with local bars for CLE credit, according to Madigan.

A CLE program developed five years ago, “Women on the Move,” regularly attracts attorneys of both genders to programs exploring topics such as alternate work arrangements, work-life balance, developing rainmaking skills, and how to become a judge, Madigan says.

The importance of mentoring

As several former and new women bar leaders reflect on their paths to presidencies, virtually all say that mentors both male and female were important in kindling their interests in bar activities and in pointing them toward leadership.

Lynn Fontaine Newsome’s first job as a lawyer was working for a lawyer, Katherine Sweeney, who later went on to become U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Hayden of New Jersey.

“She provided me with extraordinary mentoring and tutelage as both a lawyer and bar leader,” Newsome says. “[She] was the first female president of the Morris County [N.J.] Bar Association. I followed her as bar president 12 years later and my partner, Debra Weisberg, will follow me in a few years.

“I was mentored by Judge Hayden, and I did the same for Debra. All of us have grown our legal careers while participating and advancing in bar associations."

It was a male past president of the Broome County (N.Y.) Bar Association who served as a mentor and encouraged Madigan to pursue bar activities and leadership as a young lawyer. “Past [bar presidents] are great mentors,” agrees Asti.

Says Peggy Sheahan Knee, Newsome’s successor at the NJSBA, “The bar needs to encourage members to mentor up-and-coming women attorneys at both the state bar association level, as well as the county bar association level."

Has it all been solved?

While the gains made by women bar leaders have been significant over the last several years, it does not mean that problems and hurdles don’t still exist at associations of all sizes. Knee experienced that firsthand not long ago when she sought the state bar’s secretary position immediately after Newsome.

“There was resistance to the concept of two women in a row serving as NJSBA president, and I was told by a number of prominent bar members that I should withdraw my name from consideration,” she recalls. “I thought it was odd, since many men had served consecutively, [so] I continued with my pursuit of the nomination and received tremendous support from many former NJSBA presidents and other leaders."

Stunned by survey, bar hires gender equality coordinator

The Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association conducted a discouraging survey in 1990 that found that women lawyers in the Pittsburgh area were far behind their male counterparts in key areas such as salary and firm partnerships.

Even more discouraging: A 2005 survey that found virtually no improvement.

Unlike 15 years earlier, however, the 6,500-member bar acted decisively when the results were released. A Gender Equality Task Force with four subcommittees was established, leading to the July 2007 hiring of Linda Varrenti Hernandez the first gender equality coordinator at any mainstream bar in the country.

Hernandez and ACBA hope that her efforts not only yield results for that bar, but also provide a template for potential success at bars nationwide in the coming years.

“I think it was very forward-thinking and very courageous of them to take that step,” she says. “We’re not a lot different from any other bars at all. What’s different is that we decided to do something about it."

ACBA’s gender wake-up call came in 2006 when the survey, conducted a year earlier, was released. It showed that 20 percent of women thought gender discrimination played a significant role in hindering their professional development, while another 40 percent thought it was sometimes a factor. The survey also found that men in the Pittsburgh area were twice as likely as women to become equity partners, and that men were eight times more likely to earn $350,000 or more in salary annually.

The decision to create the gender equality coordinator position came after the task force held several focus group sessions, conducted research, and established subcommittees that looked at issues such as compensation, work-life balance, job satisfaction, and perceptions and attitudes toward women lawyers.

In a few short months, Hernandez has found that the issue of gender equality is complex, comparable to the layers of an onion. “You keep peeling it back and finding out more at every level, yet there’s always something different that comes up."

One surprise since assuming her post: “The men who have called me to say, ‘What can I do to help?’ "

With that kind of support, Hernandez is optimistic that she can work with bars, firms, and other groups to develop a set of best practices that the bar can use to encourage and promote gender equality in the legal profession in Allegheny County. Plans are also being discussed for a statewide or regional “gender summit,” she adds.

“If we can figure this out, we can certainly take this program to every bar in Pennsylvania,” she says. “I’m hoping this can be a portable program that can go places."


Also troubling are surveys showing increasing frustration for women lawyers particularly those of color. A 2006 report by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession found that 62 percent of women of color at law firms said they were excluded from formal and informal firm networking opportunities.

The percentage for white males: 4 percent.

Other surveys done by bars across the country and by the ABA continue to find that women lawyers are far less likely (in some studies, five times less likely) to become equity partners, and that salaries for women lawyers continue to lag behind men with similar experience.

Not surprisingly, Roberts says, more women lawyers are leaving the profession, and, after several years of gains, the number of women entering law school has declined. “The tone at the top is critical,” she says. “In all arenas, including bar associations, everybody can be more proactive."

Roberts and others agree that the issue of family and childbearing remains part of the discriminatory undercurrent. While more young men are taking a more active role in their families, “the reality is that women do the bulk of the parenting,” Howard says. “The question is: Do women have the time [to lead]? We have trouble finding women who have that ability."

Adds Sullivan, “I still find that when women lawyers have their babies, they’re the ones who go on the mommy track, and they’re the ones whose careers are stymied.” Likewise, Sullivan and others say, a woman lawyer’s leadership career can stall out because work and life are difficult enough to balance without adding volunteer bar work as well.

How bars can help

It is the local, state, and national bars that represent the men and women of the profession who should be helping change things, Sullivan and others say. It can begin with the bar executive directors who work year in and year out with different bar presidents on issues facing the profession, according to Roberts.

“There is value and strength in the executive director’s voice,” she says. “That voice is always there in all of the discussions that go on, so that person can have a huge impact on both the formal and informal programs at the bar."

Howard says the ABA, through groups such as the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the ABA-affiliated National Association of Women Lawyers, “is a leader in getting rid of the barriers. There’s no difference between women and men in the ABA."

Besides the executive director, other members of bar staff can make a big difference when it comes to gender equity. At some bars, the diversity director addresses gender diversity as well as racial and ethnic diversity and diversity in terms of sexual orientation. One bar, the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association, has a dedicated gender equality coordinator on staff (See “Stunned by survey, bar hires gender equality coordinator,” page 10).

“I’m not going to accuse anyone of anything. I want to offer attorneys insights about things they didn’t learn in law school; for example, many women [lawyers] were not trained in rainmaking,” says ACBA’s Linda Varrenti Hernandez. “I want things at the bar to be ongoing and institutionalized. If it’s something formalized, then I think we can measure success."

She and many other women bar leaders also agree that bars can play a significant role in bringing together the large and influential firms in their areas, whose policies on issues such as part-time positions, partnership opportunities, and bar association work often have an impact on their peers and smaller firms.

“It’s up to the bar leadership to go out there and talk with some of the senior managing partners,” says Rikleen, who also worries about a decline in bar association participation among younger lawyers. “Women and young lawyers need the opportunities that bar service provides."

The New Haven County bar recently developed what it calls the Leadership Circle, which regularly brings together partners in the county’s largest firms to make them more aware of bar activities and to encourage involvement.

Despite the challenges that still exist, many women bar leaders take encouragement from the history being made now and what that bodes in the future.

“The door is open now, and it shows a great deal of promise for women,” Asti says. “But it takes a lot of work."

What about executive directors?

When Janet Welch became the first woman executive director of the 38,000-member State Bar of Michigan last year, she didn’t immediately recognize the importance of her appointment. She reluctantly agreed to note her selection in a cover story for the bar’s monthly magazine.

It wasn’t until after the story appeared that Welch better understood the historic appointment.

“The publications staff convinced me that my status as the first woman in the position was significant and that the cover was a visible recognition of that fact,” she says. “And they were right. I got countless messages from members both men and women that they were pleased that this barrier had been broken."

While Welch and other executives are noticing more women heading up bar associations, they also know there’s more room at the top particularly at the larger statewide bars. But like their association members, they’re also seeing more opportunities and more expectations of change in the years ahead.

“Small local bars, for the most part, and many midsize bars are staffed and run by women,” says Evelyn Sullivan, executive director of the 700-member Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association, and president of the National Association of Bar Executives. A bar executive for two decades, Sullivan is also starting to see change at the major metro bar level, with women executive directors at 12 of the 20 largest metro bars.

Change has come more slowly at the largest state bars, with women EDs at seven of the 20 largest such associations. Sullivan speculates the lower number is likely due to the requirement at many mandatory bars that the executive director also be a lawyer, “but with more women attorneys out there, that should change, too,” she notes.

Indeed, change does seem to be under way. State bars in Arkansas, Virginia, and West Virginia now have female lawyers as executive directors, having recently replaced male ones. In New England, four out of six state bar executives are women; in the Western States Bar Conference, eight out of the 16 state bar executives are women.

A lawyer and a mother of two one a college student, the other a young attorney Welch also sees more executive-level opportunities at bars for women lawyers. “My sense is that women find these positions, and positions of general counsel, more compatible with raising a family than the current model for law firm partnership,” which puts a premium on long office hours and continues to favor men, she says.

Nancy Gallego was able to raise two children as a single mother while serving as executive director of the 650-member El Paso (Tex.) Bar Association for the last 15 years. “When I started here, it was a stagnant organization, and a bit like a good old boy network,” she says. “Things have changed over the years."

Sullivan has also seen the change at NABE, where more and more women bar execs have joined the ranks from bars of all sizes, she says. The NABE Board of Directors is evenly divided between men and women.

“The best encouragement I can give [to women] is to talk about what a great job this is,” Welch says.



From one to many

Responses to a NABE query on the topic of women in bar leadership revealed an interesting phenomenon: Several bars indicated that they had had no female presidents for their first 100 years or more, and have since had several in the past decade or two.

Is this the natural result of the first big wave of women lawyers reaching the age at which one typically becomes bar president? The result of conscious pipeline efforts on the part of the bar? Does the first female president mentor others, or cause others to realize that they, too, can become president? Perhaps it’s a combination of all of those factors. Regardless, there does seem to be a pattern. Here are some statistics from a few of the bars that responded:

The San Diego County (Calif.) Bar Association had just six female presidents in its first 100 years. Currently, its president, president-elect, and immediate past president are all women.

The Boston Bar Association, which dates back to 1761, had its first female president in 1987 and has since had seven more, including three pairs of back-to-back female presidents.

The Rhode Island Bar Association had its first female president in 1981, one of just two in its first 100 years. Its current president is its fifth female president; the sixth is expected the year after next, and the seventh is expected to immediately follow her.

The Memphis (Tenn.) Bar Association, founded in 1874, had its first female president in 1999. Since then, there have been four female presidents, in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2008.

The El Paso (Texas) Bar Association will soon welcome the fourth female president in its 110-year history. Taking into account an officer who is currently in the pipeline, in 2011, the bar will have had three female presidents within a 10-year span.

The New Hampshire Bar Association, founded in 1873, had its first female president in 1992 and its second in 1993. Since then, the bar has had two more female presidents, including its current leader, who will be succeeded by the fifth woman to serve as president of the NHBA.