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August 11, 2021

ABA female presidents on gender equity in law – and obstacles yet to overcome

At the General Assembly of the 2021 ABA Hybrid Annual Meeting in Chicago, current ABA President Patricia Lee Refo joined seven of nine past female presidents of the association to discuss progress in the advancement of women in law and the obstacles that still remain.

“Every single one of these extraordinary women has personally mentored me,” Refo said as she asked them about their experiences.

Roberta Cooper Ramo, the first woman ABA president (1995-96), recalled running for office at the same time that Martha Barnett (2000-01) ran for chair of the House of Delegates. It showed that women at the helm of the association “wasn’t a one-off thing at all, but that our bench was incredibly deep.”

Back then, Ramo said, “there weren’t as many of us [women] as there are now,” but sadly, although she created the Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence, today “the problem [of gender equity is] not even remotely solved.”

Barnett said she felt like she had the support of “the power structure of men” in the ABA, which allowed her and those that followed “to have an easier path to walk.”

For Carolyn Lamm (2009-10), it was other women attorneys who helped her the most. Reflecting on the progress made in promoting women in her areas of law, which include international arbitration and dispute resolution, Lamm said, “It really takes women pulling other women along and up, and showing them the way.”

Even with help from mentors, the path to success is particularly challenging to women lawyers, most of whom face daily systemic obstacles.

“I think talking about balanced lives to young women is a misrepresentation,” said Laurel Bellows (2012-13) of the challenges. She added she didn’t think that any of the women gathered “has a balanced life – even wants a balanced life – but enjoys a different kind of balance every day and at every point in her career.”

In fact, a woman should be encouraged to “unbalance her life in favor of her passions of the moment,” Bellows said.

Female lawyers of color face even greater hurdles than their white counterparts, which was confirmed by research initiated by Paulette Brown, the first African American woman to serve as ABA president (2015-16).

Brown recalled that a few years ago she could name all of the other Black female litigators in her age range “and I thought I should not be able to do that.” She suspected that the professional issues faced by white female lawyers were different for women of color.

A subsequent ABA report, “Left Out and Left Behind indeed found that experienced women of color stayed in the legal field even as their white counterparts left, often due to being the major bread winners in their families because they frequently were the first in the family to go to college or law school and felt they had to serve as role models for others, among other issues.

To this day, Brown said, women of color remain fewer than 2% of equity partners.

“Law firms underestimate the impediments that women face to be successful in law practice and overestimate the initiatives that they’ve created to try to assist,” said Hilarie Bass (2017-18).

Expanding Brown’s work on women of color, Bass initiated a report during her term that examined why women leave the law at 150% the rate of men.

Walking Out the Door” found that experienced women felt they had “to work harder and do better to get the same recognition as a male colleague,” she said.

As detailed in the ABA report, women felt that as soon as they became mothers, their law firms saw them as less committed to their careers, which affected the types of clients and work they were given. In trying to fix this, Bass said firms have instituted “feel-good measures,” like flex time, but then the women feel there’s a stigma to taking it. “The more that men stay home to assist with the family and other duties, the more opportunities that provides for women lawyers to get back to the office,” she said.

Gender equity will require the commitment of everyone in the legal profession – both women and men. Judy Perry Martinez (2019-20) urged women in the profession “to make sure we aren’t pulling ladders up,” and law firm leaders to make changes “doing it together with everyone at the table.”

“There is much work to be done…and different work that helps all women,” Refo concluded, citing the progress to equality yet to be made.

Karen Mathis (2007-08) and Linda Klein (2016-17) were unable to attend the program.

The 11th female and second African American woman, Deborah Enix-Ross, will serve as ABA president in 2022-23.