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“The legal profession is not yet gender-neutral,” Laurie Berke-Weiss, partner at New York-based Berke-Weiss & Pechman told a packed room at the Association for the Bar of the City of New York in mid-town Manhattan last week. “We want to see glass ceilings broken down and we are dedicated to these issues,” she declared. Berke-Weiss was the moderator of a panel discussion called, “What It’s (Really) Like to Practice Law in NYC as a Woman.” The New York Women’s Bar Association and The Association of the Bar of the City of New York sponsored the event, which drew a large crowd of both women lawyers and female law students. The annual meeting started eight years ago when The New York Women’s Bar Association decided to have a meeting with new lawyers to discuss what it’s really like to practice law as a woman, according to New York Women’s Bar Association President, Angela Tese-Milner. In her introductory remarks, Tese-Milner said that about half of the students coming out of law school were women, but that they only comprise about 10 percent of the partnership ranks at the country’s major law firms. PREJUDICE FIRST HAND The panelists described their personal experiences with gender discrimination. Kathryn Beller, a partner at Irvine, Calif.-based McDermott Will & Emery, told how, when she was starting out as a lawyer in Texas she found herself in a room filled exclusively with men on one of her first deals. “One of the clients turned to me and asked if I knew how to take dictation! I said, ‘No — but I can write faster than you think.’ “ “Just because women have gotten to positions of power doesn’t mean [the profession] is any more gender-neutral,” warned panelist Tanya L. Washington, an assistant attorney general at the Office of the New York Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau. Washington described experiences in which even female judges showed favoritism to male attorneys during the course of a trial “Some women judges like to have men in front of them and it’s a disadvantage to be a woman,” she said. Washington said she once went into court and quickly realized that none of her objections would be sustained. “I didn’t know if it was because I was a woman or a person of color but it’s just a feeling you have.” Once she determined she wasn’t going to have much success in front of this judge she then switched her strategy and focused on building a strong record for the eventual appeal. THE FAMILY CHALLENGE Raising a family also presents challenges to female lawyers. Beller said that when lawyers have children many employers start questioning their commitment to their jobs. When Beller began raising her family of four she looked for opportunities, such as flex-time arrangements, that would accommodate her new needs. “I tried to arrange some time and years when family was the first priority,” she said. Beller said she wasn’t making much money during that time but she was able to keep her hand in the profession and learn. This enabled her to pick up her career where she left off when her youngest hit the first grade. NOT A MAN IN A DRESS Many of the panelists stressed the importance of rising above prejudice and ignorance. “Never let anyone make you feel you are not as talented as anyone else,” Washington advised. The panelists said women can use a softer style of practicing law and be themselves. “There is more than one way to practice law. You don’t have to do it the aggressive male way. There is also the just-get-the-job-done way. You can do it with a quiet voice,” Berke-Weiss advised. Beller told the attendees that women need to carve out their own path in the law. “I realize that a lot of what I am is being feminine — not a man in a dress,” she said Beller also warned lawyers not to be “so aggressive or abrasive that [the law] turns you into a person you don’t want to be.”

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