Women’s History Month – celebrate the achievements and initiatives of our female partners and counsel. In this Q&A, the women of EM3 Law discuss the evolution of women in the legal sector, what factors have improved the role of women in the profession and what advice they would give to women just starting out in law.
How have you seen the evolution of women lawyers in the legal sector since you started your professional career?
I have seen substantial improvements in the status of women lawyers in law firms since the beginning of my career. When I began in the mid-1980s, it was not uncommon for (male) partners to assume that the women associates were present at client meetings primarily to make sure that the room was stocked with notepads and pens and that everyone had coffee. There was a long adjustment period. Apparently, it was up to my generation to prove that women attorneys were fully capable of performing as well as men. I believe that we did prove that, and it’s gratifying to see that more and more younger women are sticking with their careers and becoming partners.
According to younger colleagues in large law firms, however, women still have to fight for the best work, and cannot take for granted (notwithstanding the advent of the MeToo movement) that our paths to partnership will be as direct as the path followed by male colleagues. Much more progress is needed, particularly if women attorneys are expected to bear primary responsibility for being caregivers while managing a full time, demanding professional career.
By Leslie Chervokas
What factors do you think have improved the role of women in the legal sector?
A combination of legal and social changes, educational opportunities, and cultural shifts have contributed to the improved role of women in the legal sector. Mentoring and networking opportunities have helped women establish connections and relationships with other legal professionals, leading to more opportunities for advancement and professional growth. Moreover, law firms and legal organizations have made a conscious effort to promote diversity and inclusion, creating more opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups in the legal profession. This has resulted in increased representation of women in leadership positions.
By Stefanie Linares Hood
What advice would you give to women just starting out in law?
I would advise women just starting out in law to start networking early in your career. Creating a network is a great way to develop a support system that will ultimately help you achieve your professional goals. This should include meeting new people in the legal profession, as well, as staying in touch with law school classmates and professors. I would also suggest seeking out a mentor – whether it be a senior attorney at your job or an attorney who works in an area of law that you are interested in. It is invaluable to have someone with experience in the legal profession to provide you with guidance and advice as you begin your legal career. I would also advise women to challenge themselves and to not hesitate to take the initiative. If there is a particular area of law you are interested in, seek out work in that area. Also, if you get opportunities to work on matters that are outside of your main practice area, take them. The more areas of law you are familiar with, the more well-rounded of a lawyer you will become. Lastly, I would advise women to make sure that they have a work-life balance. Starting out as a new lawyer can be stressful and overwhelming at times, so it is important to have interests outside of work that you enjoy. Self-care is vital and will ultimately make you a better and more successful lawyer.
By Susan Stoddard
Why is having senior female role models important?
You can’t be what you can’t see, someone wise observed. This may not be true for exceptional performers, women that come from homes without women role models who achieve success in education or personal markers, but who manage somehow to beat the odds and realize their dreams.
I believe it’s true for most people, for men and women. For us, a path of some kind must be manifested and we must see ourselves on that path to aspire to professional life. We can find that path through family or personal relationships, or from professional or social networks, or by studying an exalted, far off role model. Thankfully, many women have created career paths that benefit all women who want to be lawyers.
From the heights of the profession, such as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor, to women lawyers whose contributions are less visible but impactful, it’s easy now to find woman lawyer role models. Early in my career, few women lawyers worked in proximity to me but there were women judges and entrepreneurs in public life. Those women inspired me and male mentors convinced me I could aspire to succeed.
Mentoring programs, such as the program sponsored by the Illinois Health Lawyers Association, have played a vital role in supplying women, and male and female diverse lawyers with mentors. I encourage all my colleagues to connect to young lawyers, either formally through sponsored programs, or informally. We need each other to realize the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion for women and diverse lawyers.
By Joan Lebow
We know clients value diversity in their external law firms, but how do we get more women into leadership roles in firms?
The key to getting more women in leadership roles in law firms is to start providing opportunities to lead when they are new associates and providing support to make it all work. I have been practicing law for more than twenty years and I have seen a lot of improvements in the diversity of the legal profession. Law schools matriculate women just as often as men. Entering law firm classes for most firms are composed of nearly 50% women. Yet, when you look at law firm leadership, it is almost entirely composed of men across the board. Most often this is because women are not staying at law firms in the same numbers that they are entering them.
To retain more women attorneys at large law firms and thus have women obtain the experience necessary to lead the firm, law firm culture must continue to evolve. Most women who graduate law school and are hired by law firms, have what it takes to be a good leader. They need mentors that will work with them to obtain hands-on experience in law firm leadership. Women want flexibility in schedules and matters so they can better achieve a work-life balance and still be valued at the firm. Those currently leading law firms need to recognize and reward diverse management styles. There is no doubt that women can and do get stuff done. It just may happen in a different way and with a different style than what those currently in power expect.
By Michelle Skinner
What advice would you give to younger female lawyers today?
My advice to women who are in the earlier stages of their legal careers is to be confident enough in themselves to take risks. When I say “take risks,” I don’t mean making foolish choices. I mean being open to opportunities that may not be within your immediate field of vision, but that give you the chance to grow and expand your understanding of how the law, and the world in general, work. While I am by no means criticizing those who have chosen to concentrate on a specific, narrow field of law, I find that the attorneys I most admire and who are the most effective in representing their clients are those who have had experience in a wider range of legal disciplines. And by ignoring opportunities that don’t seem to be directly on your chosen career path, you may miss a chance to practice in a whole new area that is even more exciting than what originally inspired you to become an attorney.
I also believe that it is critically important to use your abilities as a lawyer to help those who either don’t have access to or can’t afford the legal help they need. As a licensed attorney, you have skills and abilities that can help others that are unique to the profession, and that can make a huge difference in another person’s life. Many volunteer organizations are willing to train pro bono attorneys in how to represent their clients, particularly when the area of representation is one that is typically outside of the areas of practice of those who volunteer, so it isn’t necessary to confine your pro bono work to your own practice area. Be confident in yourself and your ability to help. You can represent an indigent client in a landlord-tenant dispute, or assist an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum, or help a new business struggling to support an underserved community. The opportunities are endless, and the need is there. And you will be a better attorney – and a better person – for it.
By Susan Macaulay
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