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ABA female presidents discuss progress, challenges

August 9, 2021

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 at the same time that Martha Barnett (2000-01) ran for chair of the House of Delegates. It showed “it 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 as there are now,” but sadly, although she created the Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, today “the problem [is] not even remotely solved.”

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

Paulette Brown, the first African American woman to serve as ABA president (2015-16), 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 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 the law practice and overestimate the initiatives that they’ve created to try to assist,” said Hilarie Bass (2017-18). A report examining why women leave the law at 150% the rate of men, found that experienced women felt they had “to work harder and do better to get the same recognition as a male colleague.” 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. “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,” Bass said.

Judy Perry Martinez (2019-20) urged law firm leaders to make changes “doing it together with everyone at the table.”

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