A member of the national press recently commented on the lack of women attorneys present in bankruptcy court in the Southern District of Florida for hearings in a particular high-profile case. Fewer and fewer women appear to be taking lead roles in large bankruptcy cases.
Moreover, there appear to be fewer women in leadership roles in professional associations for lawyers in the bankruptcy practice. For instance, although there have been 10 female past presidents in the Bankruptcy Bar Association of the Southern District of Florida’s 30-year history, presently there are no female officers and only two female board members.
Despite progress achieved by women in the legal profession, it is evident that there are still unique challenges facing today’s women attorneys. This is especially the case in the area of business and bankruptcy law because women are still among the minority and are not continuing to climb the ranks and earning a place at the podium or boardroom as steadily as was expected.
Has progress for women in the workplace stalled? This subject has recently been highlighted by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, in her best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” where she suggests that advancement for professional women has slowed to an unacceptable pace. I agree. It may be as a result of a number of factors, including a shrinking market for high-end business and bankruptcy legal work, leading to layoffs and attrition among the younger females in the ranks at law firms, combined with the pressures of motherhood and career. Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become a U.S. secretary of state, stated that “women can have it all, just not at the same time.”
Guidance and support for younger women in the legal ranks will help them achieve their place at the podium. The key is to find those women who desire to achieve that level of professional success and encourage them to take advantage of professional opportunities. This message has not been lost on me and my female counterparts in South Florida, who want to see more women involved at the highest levels in the legal community.
What do the current president of the American Bankruptcy Institute, the current co-chair and past chair of Florida’s Network of the International Women’s Insolvency and Restructuring Confederation, three former presidents of the Bankruptcy Bar Association of the Southern District of Florida, a past chair of the Business Law Section of the Florida Bar and the vice chair of the Bankruptcy/UCC Committee of the Business Law Section all have in common? They are women leaders in the area of business and bankruptcy law that are “leaning in” to their professions by identifying these issues and why women’s progress in the practice of law has stalled. This “lean in” group has taken a personal interest to heighten awareness of the obstacles younger women face in the practice of law and provide support and mentorship to the next generation of female attorneys.
The group is reaching out to female attorneys and inviting them to draw from the group’s experiences and their networks of contacts for business and leadership opportunites. They want to provide these women with the encouragement and support to assume leadership roles within their firms and in their profession. These younger women attorneys will find in this group the key to invitations to leadership roles in a number of professional organizations, opportunities to write, speak and be highlighted as leaders in their practice areas, and invaluable advice to career progression. In addition, the group provides an extensive network of business contacts that will certainly enable young women to connect with the leaders of business in nearly any industry in South Florida.
To motivate awareness in the community and promote discussion about these issues facing women in the practice of law, the group meets for a “lean in” lunch during the busiest day of the week, once a month, at the most popular lunch spots in downtown Miami. If anyone sees these powerful women — who are oftentimes seated at opposite sides of the courtroom — lunching together, they might ask, what brings this group together and what important issues are they discussing? They dine together and share support, resources, and tools with young women leaders in the practice of business and bankruptcy law. Their goal — awareness that inspires not just women to reach for success but that also inspires men in the community to enable and support them to do so.