July 10, 2013

Bar Associations: Gain Ground by Stepping Up to the Bar

G.M. Filisko

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a member of a women’s bar,” says Susan Low Bloch, who graduated from law school in 1975 and today is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. “I do remember in law school, a group of women went to the dean and said we wanted a women in the law course. They thought that was a joke.

“Women’s bars provided an antidote to that,” Bloch recalls. “They said, ‘We’re not a joke. We exist. We have a particular interest, suggestions, and maybe grievances. You have to take us seriously.’ They gave voice to a lot of issues from a point of view the male bar hadn’t considered.”

These issues may seem archaic today. “Women were earning far less than their male counterparts, which they still are today,” explains Gill Freeman, a circuit court judge in Miami and in 1983 a vice president of the just-launched National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations, based in Portland, Oregon. “They had difficulty getting hired. There was no such thing and no thought of maternity leave in law firms. In fact, if you had children, you got sidetracked on the mommy track and had no chance for partnership—ever.”

Eradicating Biased Practices

In fact, after clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a pregnant Bloch was looking to join a major Washington, D.C., firm. She disclosed her pregnancy and asked if she could work part time. The response? “If we say yes, do we also have to offer that opportunity to a man who wants to write poetry?” Bloch’s “No, here’s why they’re different” satisfied the firm. “They were acting in good faith. But they didn’t get it.”

Women’s bars helped eradicate these types of practices. “They pushed to institute commissions on gender bias—almost all states ultimately had one—which investigated the status of women in the court and legal systems,” Freeman recalls. “In Florida, as a result, a domestic violence statute was passed, and our marital dissolution statute was amended to include things like the presumption of equitable distribution. We learned having the power of an organization definitely helped.”

Bar-related organizations also helped propel women forward. “When you look at their participation on and serving as chairs of committees that draft bar exam questions, women are a very active force in shaping the licensing instrument that ultimately determines who’s going to enter the profession,” contends Erica Moeser, who’s built a career working in bar organizations, starting in 1975 at the State Bar of Wisconsin.

Today, Moeser is president and CEO of the National Conference of Bar Examiners in Madison, Wisconsin. “That has only accelerated since I came aboard, but not necessarily because of me,” she says. “There’s been a rising tide of very talented women. You can come to no conclusion other than [to recognize] that women are a very powerful force in this particular gatekeeping function in the profession.”

Transformational Leadership

Leadership in general bars has also been transformational. “The leadership path teaches you politics and common sense, gives you the opportunity to take a leadership role on very important projects, and teaches not only how to think creatively but to implement and execute,” says Laurel G. Bellows, 2012−2013 ABA president and a principal in The Bellows Law Group in Chicago.

The work of women’s bars isn’t done. “There’s still a need for women to have an opportunity to get together and compare situations,” Freeman says. “If you don’t have other women to talk to, you think the problems you’re facing are all your own fault.”

She adds that women’s bar associations also need to continue to push agendas for fairness and equality for women in society. “Recently, there was a massive push in our Florida legislature to amend the alimony statute retroactively to automatically terminate it when the payor, usually the husband, reaches the age of 65. Our local women’s bar didn’t lobby to defeat it.

“A group of old gals got together with the powers that be and basically said, ‘You’re missing the boat,” Freeman continues. “You have a responsibility to women in general as much as to yourself.’ Hopefully, they got that message. We’ve come a long way. But we haven’t died and gone to heaven yet.”

G.M. Filisko

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance journalist who covers legal, real estate, business, and personal finance topics for such publications as the ABA Journal, Consumers Digest, REALTOR Magazine, AARP.com, and Bankrate.com.