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44th Street Notes

The Status of Women in the Legal Profess

Apr 1999

On Thursday, February 11, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, delivered the 51st Benjamin N. Cardozo Lecture. At the commencement and again at the conclusion of her remarks, she received standing ovations from an audience that not only filled the Meeting Hall but spilled over into the adjacent reception area. After the lecture, Justice Ginsburg confirmed the accuracy of stories that have been told of her earliest years at the Bar: her rejection by Justice Frankfurter as a clerk, notwithstanding strong support of her candidacy from Professor (later Dean) Sacks of Harvard Law School, and her inability to secure an offer of employment from a single New York law firm even though she had been a member of the law reviews at both Harvard and Columbia Law Schools. The contrast between the treatment accorded to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, law graduate, and that accorded 40 years later to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice, not only is stunning but also invites reflection on the status of women in the legal profession today.

This Association was shamefully tardy in admitting women (the first was admitted in 1937, 67 years after the Association was founded). As late as 1974 Association committees met in clubs that refused to admit women, until a young member of the Executive Committee--yes, it was Ruth Bader Ginsburg--persuaded the Executive Committee to condemn use of those venues for meetings. In more recent times, the Association has encouraged women lawyers to join the Association and participate fully in its many and varied activities.

As of January 31 of this year, the Association had 5,895 women members, an increase of 761 (or 15%) over their number 12 months earlier. Women now constitute 29% of the total membership and, coincidentally, chair 29% of the Associationˇ¦s committees (52 of 179). During the past decade, 22 women have been elected to the Executive Committee; three women have served as Chairs of the Executive Committee; there have been 12 women vice-presidents; and the membership, acting through the Nominating Committee, finally in 1994 proposed a woman, Barbara Paul Robinson, as President. The Association can justifiably claim to be in the front ranks of the legal profession in striving to eradicate gender stereotypes and not only acknowledging, but by our actions demonstrating, that women are as competent as men to hold positions of leadership in the profession.

Pointing with pride to our own accomplishments is not enough for an organization that seeks to educate and influence those beyond its membership: the profession as a whole, the judiciary and the organs of government. In fact, the Association has done much more to put an end to conduct and attitudes based on false distinctions between men and women. We have active, standing committees on women in the profession and in the courts, and gender-related issues are regularly addressed by numerous other committees.

Perhaps the most significant action taken by the Association has been its March 1998 adoption of a Statement of Goals of New York Law Firms and Legal Departments for the Retention and Promotion of Women, the first policy statement issued by the Association that focused exclusively on womenˇ¦s issues. Recognizing that the increased entry of women into the legal profession has not been accompanied by an equal increase in retention and promotion of women lawyers to partnership and similar positions of authority in corporate legal departments, the Statement expounds explicit goals, including ˇ§full and equal participation of women in all levels of the work, responsibilities and rewardsˇ¨ of their legal employers. The Statement further recommends specific steps to be taken to achieve those goals, steps that address the work environment, criteria for promotion and participation in governance.

To date 97 law firms and 22 corporate legal departments have subscribed to the Statement of Goals. The Statement realistically recognizes that law firms and corporate law departments have their own individualized cultures and that equality between men and women must be sought and achieved within those cultures. As Kathryn J. Rodgers, Chair of the Committee on Women in the Profession, pointedly put it: ˇ§We donˇ¦t care how you do it. Just do it.ˇ¨ I urge additional law firms and corporate legal departments to subscribe to the Statement of Goals.

Gender bias has also regrettably been present in the courts, as manifested by the treatment of women attorneys, litigants and court employees. These subjects are finally receiving attention at the highest levels in both the state and federal judicial systems. In May 1996 the New York Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts, chaired by Judge Kathryn McDonald, issued a report assessing the changes that had occurred in the decade since issuance of a seminal report by a task force appointed by then Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke. The 1996 Committee report sounded ˇ§a consistent theme: impressive progress alongside persistent problems.ˇ¨ The Committee is continuing its work under the leadership of Justice Betty Weinberg Ellerin. In the federal judicial system, roughly half of the women lawyers surveyed in 1996 and 1997 by the Second Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Bias reported having experienced biased conduct, ranging from being mistaken for a non-lawyer to patronizing remarks and disparagement of their competence. The Task Force made a series of specific recommendations addressing, among other subjects, improvement of procedures for registering and resolving complaints of biased behavior by judicial officers and court employees.

The pace of progress in eradicating gender discrimination is steady but slow; the National Law Journal recently reported that the percentage of women partners in the nationˇ¦s largest law firms is slowly climbing, but has reached only 15.7%. That pace must be not only maintained but accelerated. Can that be accomplished? I firmly believe so for the following reasons. First, law students grow up in a much less discriminatory environment than many of us did, and they bring those gender neutral values and attitudes to their legal employers after graduation. Second, law firms and other employers throughout society are becoming increasingly flexible and accommodating to the needs and desires of young female--and male--lawyers. The rigid eight- or nine-year partnership track and the philosophy of ˇ§up or outˇ¨ are gradually becoming fossilized. Parental leave by a father, non-existent and virtually unthinkable when I graduated law school in 1960, is becoming more common and should be further encouraged. Finally, advances in telecommunications, which permit lawyers to connect with their office computer networks from distant locations (including home) and are making videoconferencing a more common and accepted mode of communication, are beginning to cast doubt on the necessity of spending 40, 50 or 60 hours a week in the office.

It is clearly too early to declare victory in the war against gender discrimination, and it would be imprudent to relax our efforts at its eradication, but we have come a long way. We can be as proud of our achievements in this area as we are determined to make further progress in eliminating one of the shames of our profession.

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