The National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations and the New York Women’s Bar Association hosted a virtual panel on July 14, 2021: “What It’s Really Like to Practice Law as a Woman.” Participants included Amy Dunn, a personal injury attorney, yoga instructor, and photographer in Houston; Pam Jacobson, a partner and patent attorney at K&L Gates in Seattle; Maleaha Brown, an associate professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, former family law attorney at legal services organizations, and a Ms. JD board member; and Rennee Dehesea, an estate planning attorney and boutique firm partner in Ventura County (California). The Honorable Saliann Scarpulla of the New York County Supreme Court’s Commercial Division moderated the conversation. Because the discussion’s themes cut across state lines, we share highlights with you.
Judge Scarpulla kicked off the panel by referencing a controversial opinion piece in the ABA Journal, “Are Women Lawyers Paying Enough Attention to Upward Mobility?” by Susan Smith Blakely, and a response from previous female ABA presidents. In her piece, Ms. Smith Blakely posited that “lawyer moms” face professional pitfalls of their own making and exhorted them to put more effort into team success and effective mentoring. Panelists asserted in response that the legal profession — and its dominant players — bear responsibility for creating an equitable playing field for female attorneys. Ms. Brown and Ms. Dehesea described how other female attorneys, lawyers of color, and others with intersectional identities had offered them opportunities and mentorship. Both noted that the work of leveling the playing field seems to fall on minority groups but that majority groups should be doing the work.
Judge Scarpulla then asked panelists to describe their experiences with outdated assumptions about female attorneys. Ms. Dunn and Ms. Jacobson were sure that they had faced outdated assumptions — Ms. Jacobson especially so when she was a new attorney and mother to young children. But they both described preempting any such assumptions by being extremely confident in their abilities, outworking other attorneys, and using their personal characteristics to their benefit. Both also credited more senior attorneys who trusted them with opportunities, like court appearances.
Panelists also discussed the ever-elusive ”work-life balance.“ One of the premises of Ms. Smith Blakely’s ABA piece was that if an attorney takes care of her family or has non-legal pursuits, she will not be a successful lawyer. Panelists swiftly rejected that premise. Ms. Brown described how critical self-care was to her stint in legal services; after handling clients’ heavy situations, she needed to separate work from life to enjoy either. Similarly, Ms. Dunn explained that because she teaches yoga, takes photographs, and more, she is more efficient and focused in her time in the office. Nonetheless, it can be a struggle to maintain balance, the panelists agreed. Ms. Jacobson admitted that this is the first time in her career when she feels like she has some balance; her children are grown, and she’s at a family-friendly firm.
So how to improve the experiences of female attorneys? The common theme in the panelists’ answers was relationships, relationships, relationships. Ms. Brown urged us all to use our existing relationships to make sure that intersectional women are in the room where decisions are being made. Ms. Dehesea encouraged women’s bar associations to reach out to law schools and young lawyers, to help women as they’re trying to figure out their place in the profession. And Ms. Jacobson urged listeners to build relationships with their clients. Do one small thing a day, she recommended.
Panelists were unanimous in their appreciation for women’s bar associations. They explained that these organizations were essential in their own navigation of the legal profession and will have a critical role to play in bettering the practice of law for women.
This was an enlightening conversation among accomplished female attorneys of diverse backgrounds. It offered hope that conditions for female attorneys will improve and a reminder of the truth that women continue to face institutional barriers in this field. NCWBA and NYWBA have been putting on this program for more than two decades. Later this summer, they will offer a program about how we can bring the conversation to our own communities. Keep your eyes on NCWBA’s webinars page for this and other opportunities.
What in this conversation rings true for you? What institutional barriers have you faced because of your gender identity, and how have you overcome them? What more can CWBA do to improve the practice of law for women? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s keep this dialogue going!
Wondering how to keep the dialogue going? Visit the CWBA #IRL forum for discussion topics and community.
Isabel J. Broer is an Assistant Attorney General in the K-12 Education Unit of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. She previously clerked for Justice Monica M. Márquez and Judge Christine M. Arguello. Prior to attending Harvard Law School, Isabel taught ninth grade algebra in the Denver Public Schools. She enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and reading in her free time.