In the Philadelphia Bar Association‘s first summit dedicated to the status of women in the legal profession, some leading lights of the bench said that despite the institutional challenges of women attorneys entering the profession’s leadership ranks, women are able to be just as successful advocates as men.
“The singular, most important attribute for women, as well as men, is to exude confidence,” said U.S. District Judge Norma L. Shapiro during a panel titled “Women in the Courtroom — Communication Across the Gender Gap.”
The panel included Shapiro, moderator Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Marlene Lachman, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker and Diane M. Welsh, a mediator with JAMS — The Resolution Experts and a retired federal magistrate judge.
Maria Feeley, co-chair of the bar association’s women in the profession committee and a partner with Pepper Hamilton, said the goal of the Women in the Profession Summit was to keep up the momentum of the bar association’s Call to Action and Best Practices for the Retention and Promotion of Women Lawyers passed by the Board of Governors last fall. The best practices were developed because women are entering the legal profession at the same rate as men but do not reach leadership roles at the same rate as male attorneys.
During Wednesday’s summit, Feeley announced that 26 city firms have signed onto the September 2007 initiative. In 1998, a statement of goals for the retention and promotion of women was developed; 53 Philadelphia firms signed onto the 1998 goals.
Organizers estimated that between 100 and 150 lawyers, law students and faculty attended the event. Most attendees were female, but there were some male attendees.
During the panel of judges, Sloviter said she sees no difference today between men and women in the federal appellate process. In earlier years, there were instances when male judges were harsher on advocates for matters perceived to be in the female realm, Sloviter said, such as when a fellow judge on a panel denied a continuance for a male lawyer who wanted the continuance in order to be present while his wife gave birth.
“Times have changed,” the judge said. “We’re living in a different world.”
But other judges said there are many more miles to go toward equality in the legal profession, particularly in civil cases. Massiah-Jackson said that she couldn’t think of more than 10 minority attorneys who have tried state tort cases in front of her, and Tucker said that she could count on one hand the number of women who have tried civil federal cases in front of her.
“Men, male lawyers and some male judges — I’m not giving any names — they’re not used to women who are confident, competent,” Tucker said. They then “use that B-word” for women attorneys who act the same as men in advocating their clients’ positions.
|Signatories to the PBA Initiative|
|Last fall, the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Board of Governors passed an updated initiative for the legal community to consider the best methods for increasing the presence and power of women in the legal profession. The following firms were announced as signatories to the initiative during the first-ever Women in the Profession Summit held Wednesday.
But Tucker agreed with Shapiro’s comment that confidence and strong preparation were the keys to professional success.
“They make one comment, and that’s all,” Tucker said. “If you’re prepared, you’ll blow them out of the water each and every time.”
Welsh bristles at the suggestion women can’t be leaders in originally male-dominated fields. “Every man had a woman as a mother,” Welsh said. “Most men have a woman as a wife. Most men had women as teachers.”
Both Massiah-Jackson and Shapiro said that any unequal treatment by a first chair of a second chair who is a minority attorney or a woman attorney is highlighted because of the difference in race and/or the difference in gender.
Shapiro recounted one case before her where a plaintiffs lead counsel and a defense lead counsel both had women as their second chairs. The plaintiffs second chair was allowed to question a couple of less important witnesses, but the defense second chair was only allowed to hold up “innumerable” charts, the judge said. The verdict was in favor of the plaintiff, and one juror even asked why the defense second chair was only allowed to hold up charts, she said.
Many clients now want diverse teams of lawyers, so Massiah-Jackson suggested that “lawyers of color” not just be assigned to work in the office on depositions, interrogatories or research but be made a visible member of the team.
Shapiro said when she started practicing law 30 years ago and experienced instances of discrimination, she coped with it by not taking the discrimination personally and assuming that the person was afraid or intimidated by her.
Welsh said that successful negotiations required a different skill set from trials. The “good will and credibility and trust you’ve established with your adversary” is critical to successful negotiation, Welsh said.
Most of the judges on the panel said that a woman attorney’s appearance and style of dress does impact a jury’s perception of them.
Lachman said that women attorneys should dress to meet the expectations of the most conservative friends of attorneys’ grandparents.
Keynote speaker Charisse Lillie, vice president of human resources for Comcast Corp. and senior vice president of human resources for Comcast Cable, said during her talk that strong mentorships, especially mandatory mentoring opportunities, are key to retaining women attorneys and minority attorneys in the legal field. Mentoring helps green attorneys avoid the violation of unspoken rules that can be the death knell to their careers, Lillie said.
Lillie also said that leaders of legal organizations and entities concerned about diversity must be clear that it’s a priority at the top. Leaders also must be aware of the “intersectionality” of race and gender when creating their retention and promotion initiatives.
“We’re not at the finishing line,” Lillie said. “But I do believe we’re making steady progress.”