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Why A Women's Bar? (Revisited)

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

In a 1978 edition of The Advocate (the CWBA newsletter), the CWBA's first president, Natalie Ellwood wrote a piece entitled Why A Women's Bar? Ellwood pondered why it seemed, after practicing for 8 years as a lawyer, the opportunities for women to advance to partner, the Colorado Supreme Court or the federal court bench, or even rise to power within legal organizations seemed to be stagnant:

"The old fairy tale that there are no qualified women to hold such prestigious positions was pablum I swallowed just out of law school; I no longer can accept such a notion, I know better and I also have the professional experience and the maturity to realize that judgeships, elective offices and positions in power in our profession are not always based upon the merit and expertise of the individual chosen or elected."

In the 44 years since Ellwood wrote those words, we have seen a number of women "firsts" in prominent legal positions: Jean Dubofsky became the first female appointed as a Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court (1979); Mary Mullarkey became the first female Chief Justice of the same court (1998); Aurel Kelly became the first female Chief Judge of the Colorado Court of Appeals (1998); Claudia Jordan became the first Black female judge in Colorado (1994); Monica Márquez became the first openly LGBTQ female (and Latino American female) appointed as a Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. These women, and many more, navigated the waters of a male-dominated profession and helped pave the way for representation in all levels of the profession.

During these decades, the CWBA has continued to support the advancement of women in the legal profession, develop a wide variety of programs and CLEs, influence legislative policies that align with the CWBA's mission and purpose, and serve as a network for social and professional engagement. We have seen a lot of change: women now make up more than half of U.S. law students, and proportion of women partners at law firms has increased from 34% to 37.7% in the last six years. But after 44 years, there is still room for improvement. Only about 23% of equity partners in U.S. law firms are women. Minority female lawyers are drastically underrepresented at law firms: women of color make up 20% of first-year law students, but make up only 9% of all attorneys at U.S. law firms and about 3% of equity partners. (Source).

To make matters worse, the pandemic has placed unprecedented demands on employees in all sectors; the collapse of work and home environments and the erosion of affordable childcare options has made life particularly difficult for women, who are exiting the workforce in high numbers. The burdens of the "new normal," on top of the rigors of the practice of law generally, leave women attorneys at risk of burnout. Returning to Ellwood's observations, this is not a new phenomenon:

"One theme continually arises in [discussions with women lawyers]: that although individual women attorneys may be quite successful in their career, it is a lonely, difficult battle for them and that individual battles will not win the war for all women. A fear expressed frequently at the CWBA meetings is that the struggle of being female and practicing law is so overwhelming at times that women attorneys will eventually become so exhausted and disillusioned that they will quit the legal profession."

Despite the prominence of women in all levels of the legal, government, and corporate sectors (including the first Black female United States Supreme Court Justice nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson!), many challenges and barriers still exist for women in the workplace. These challenges are compounded by intersectional characteristics such as race, LGBTQ identification, socio-economic status, parenthood, and more. As Ellwood wrote in 1978, "the purposes of the CWBA are as varied as the participants in the group, but certainly one unanimous goal is to provide a strong support system for women attorneys and to encourage women lawyers to use legitimate power to further their visibility in a male-dominated profession."

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson (Photo by H2rty via Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, pursuit of this goal seems as necessary in 2022 as it did in 1978. But fortunately, thanks to the dedication of women lawyers over the decades, the CWBA remains a robust resource for the advancement and collaboration of women lawyers in Colorado. Taking time during this Women's History Month to look back at where we've come helps focus and define our goals for the future.

The CWBA's rich history and its legacy leaders have a lot to teach us about the present state of the legal profession. If you are interested in the ways in which we can preserve, honor, and learn from our past, and make more informed and inclusive policy decisions based on our history, consider joining the CWBA's History Committee! Please contact Co-Chairs Laura Ratcliffe or Courtney Holm for more information.


Laura Ratcliffe is a counsel in the Government Section of Hanson Bridgett, a California-based law firm. She represents a variety of public and private entities in real estate, environmental, water, and municipal law matters. She handles various aspects of real property acquisition, particularly for large public infrastructure projects. She negotiates and drafts purchase and sale agreements, easements, and construction, financing, and license agreements. She also has experience with various aspects of commercial and industrial leasing transactions, asset purchase agreements, and other corporate transactions.

Laura moved to Denver from Los Angeles in 2017 and has enjoyed getting to know the city and mountain towns in the region. She joined the CWBA after moving to Denver and has participated on the public policy committee and attended various events. She currently serves on the CWBA Board as Co-Chair of the History Committee. She is the mother of two girls, Maya (5) and Asha (3) and likes to run, hike, and explore new breweries.

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