July 29, 2020 Chair's Column

Where Are We Now and Where Are We Going?

By Stephanie A. Scharf

I write this column in June 2020—my last as chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession. As we reimagine law practice during a pandemic and grapple with the physical and psychological violence that people of color continue to face in America, many of us have experienced a wide range of reactions: frustration, depression, anger, confusion, and the desire to make meaningful action a reality.

Women, especially women of color, continue to be underrepresented and suffer greater attrition in the legal profession than men. The statistics are so well known, and so damaging to the profession, that it is hard to understand why positive change has been witheringly slow. One-fifth of law firm equity partners are women, and less than 3 percent are women of color—a huge decline given how many women start out as associates in firms. Only one-quarter of general counsels in the Fortune 500 are women, with some 5 percent women of color. Only a bit more than a quarter of all federal circuit court and federal district court judges are women.

What can each of us do? A recent focus of the Commission has been fostering new studies about the everyday practice of law and data-based recommendations for moving the needle. The recent Walking Out the Door: Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice details the reasons why women stay in firms and the reasons why they leave, through the perspectives of experienced women, men, and managing partners—all by way of explaining and encouraging policies and practices that are ripe for change.

Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color—published in June 2020, and the first national study of experienced women lawyers of color in more than a decade—drives home the hurdles, hassles, and, yes, the heartaches suffered by senior women lawyers of color. This report should be required reading for every leader in every legal workplace in the country. Something is terribly wrong when talented, dedicated, and hardworking women are stopped from achieving their full potential in the profession or are driven out altogether.

We are all experiencing a renewed national conversation about race, ethnicity, and gender and how to make our society just and equitable. These and other Commission reports pave the way for how legal employers can interrupt bias and create an inclusive culture that advances lawyers on the basis of talent, at the same time creating a stronger and more successful business along so many dimensions. Each firm, each corporation, and each organization has the ability to look at its data about hiring, promotion, compensation, workplace recognition, leadership, and more—in order to gain a genuine picture of women in the workplace and where change should take place. The challenge is having the foresight to see the facts and then to do something about what you see. To paraphrase a famous writer, it’s important to stop saying “I wish” and have the courage to start saying “I will.”

It has been my profound honor to chair the Commission on Women for the last three years. I am proud to have worked with many others to advance equity and inclusion in the legal profession. I have been guided by and learned from so many inspiring and generous lawyers who have become friends and colleagues. I end with my best wishes for all to stay healthy, be strong, and know that, together, we will continue to make change happen.

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Stephanie A. Scharf

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Stephanie A. Scharf is a founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago. She is chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and co-chairs the ABA President Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.