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With about 200 members out of the nearly 1,350 practicing women lawyers in Rhode Island, the statewide chapter of the Women’s Bar Association could use a little boost. It may just get that public relations push from its soon-to-be-president, Jennifer S. Hoopis, who at age 29, already talks like a seasoned lawyer. Just five years out of law school, Hoopis rattles off details of her involvement in various bars similar to a polished politician running for re-election. In her latest role, the Warwick lawyer is poised to take over the helm of the Rhode Island Women’s Bar Association, a group that she will lead beginning Wednesday. Tops on her agenda is making the women’s bar more visible and consequently enhancing membership. Those efforts include setting up for the first time a year-long events calendar rather than month by month for better planning, targeting legal and local publications to provide publicity about the association, including the state Bar association’s Bar Journal and collaborating with women students at Roger Williams University Law School to get them interested in the bar earlier. “I’d like to see an increased attendance at all of our events. We also have not utilized all the opportunities to speak to reporters or communication directors of the Bar about what we do and getting the word out,” she said. “Our membership has become a rather close-knit core group of attendees. I’d like to see that branch out a bit.” Hoopis, a graduate of Suffolk University Law School in Boston, is a partner with her father, Harry J. Hoopis, in the firm of Hoopis & Hoopis. Although they initially discussed her joining the firm later in her career, she instead jumped right into it. As a family law attorney, she focuses her practice on matters such as divorce, child custody and visitation. Her father is a labor law and personal injury attorney. The desire to become a lawyer was influenced by her father’s career. “I’ve had an opportunity to know what it was really going to be like,” she said. “Other attorneys my father associated with have been family friends and their children are lawyers, too.” NEW BLOOD Kathleen Wyllie, the outgoing president of the WBA, had approached Hoopis about joining the group’s board of directors in 1996, in part because of Hoopis’ work as chairwoman of the Rhode Island Bar Association’s new lawyers group. Wyllie’s request came at a time when the association’s founders were moving on and the group needed energetic, committed women to move the association along. “I think the organization at that time, and I know it’s true now, was really seeking to broaden its horizons,” Hoopis said. “They needed brand-new attorneys to spark an interest with a younger group of attorneys.” A longtime law career is not a requirement to lead the organization, Hoopis said. “If you prove yourself capable of attending meetings and also taking on some of the responsibilities, this is an organization that you don’t have to be in practice for many years,” she said. “You just have to have the dedication to see the organization grow and have good events that cater to the needs of the membership.” Wyllie became involved with the WBA in 1995 as a new attorney looking to make connections with other attorneys. The association’s leaders noted Wyllie’s attendance at almost all of the group’s activities and as such asked her to serve on the board. She subsequently got on the officer track and is now finishing a two-and-a-half year stint as president. “It is a great networking tool. You get to meet other female attorneys or if you need someone who’s an expert or an accountant, you’ll find them,” said Wyllie, a staff counsel for Allstate Insurance through the Law Offices of Michael J. Reed Jr. in Providence. As president, Wyllie said she enjoyed getting involved in numerous activities the bar sponsored or events some other group put on. For example, she has participated as a judge at student mock trials sponsored by the Rhode Island Legal Education Partnership. SHIFTING FOCUS WBA leaders say that over the years the association has shifted from being a political machine to an organization that focuses on education and networking opportunities. Family Court Judge Haiganush R. Bedrosian was involved in early efforts to establish a women’s bar in Rhode Island in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Monthly lunch meetings among a half-dozen women lawyers eventually turned into the Women Lawyers Association. But a split on the abortion issue, with some members pro-choice and others pro-life, and division over those who wanted to be a lobbying force at the State House, helped spawn a second women’s law group, the Coalition of Women Lawyers. Bedrosian said she was involved in both groups, but also pushed for the establishment of a single group to represent Rhode Island’s women lawyers. Consequently, the WBA was established in the early 1980s. “There were so few of us at that time,” said the 21-year Family Court jurist. “It made sense to just have one group.” Since then, the WBA has encountered other issues that could have been divisive for the group. In 1996, for example, the association tried to form a committee to review applicants for judicial positions and put their support behind a candidate, but that effort never materialized, Wyllie said. In touting the women’s bar today, leaders point to the reasonable annual membership fee of $35. As a member, lawyers can attend the association’s continuing legal education programs, which are usually held during the lunch hour, for $10; nonmembers pay $15. There are also numerous social events such as wine tasting’s and an annual ski trip. “Our programs are very informative and not very expensive,” Wyllie said. “Our activities are a lot more social, but members seem to like that.” The association gets involved in activities that help people in the community, such as participating in food drives and donating dress clothes to women with limited means who are trying to join the workforce. NOT FOR WOMEN ONLY Education and the social aspects are also a draw for the handful of male lawyers who are members. Anthony J. Gianfrancesco, a partner at Baluch, Gianfrancesco, Mathieu & Szerlag in Providence, initially joined because a partner in his firm, Melody A. Alger, was very active in the group. Since then, he has attended numerous continuing legal education programs and gone on the association’s annual ski trip for the last four years. “They have nice little get-togethers. I couldn’t think of a reason not to join. It’s as simple as that,” said Gianfrancesco, a civil litigator. Hoopis will take over officially at the association’s annual dinner meeting Wednesday in Providence. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams will be the guest speaker. Also at the meeting the association will honor Marilyn Shannon McConaghy, director of the state Department of Business Regulations, with the group’s annual Award of Excellence. The meeting comes on the heels of Hoopis’ marriage to Providence lawyer James S. D’Ambra, an insurance defense litigator. For a brief time at least, the WBA will take a back seat for Hoopis.

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