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A quarter century ago, a handful of women attorneys in the Albany, N.Y., area banded together and formed an organization to promote their interests and provide a vehicle for networking. Today, the 300-member Capital District Women’s Bar Association is no less committed to continuing to foster change and evolution in a once nearly exclusively male bastion. Yet, after all that has been achieved, a Women’s Bar’s work is never done. Even now, with their growing ranks and with female attorneys playing a prominent role in the local legal community, only two women sit on the Supreme Court in the seven county Third Judicial District: Supreme Court Justice Leslie E. Stein of Albany and Appellate Division, Third Department, Justice Karen K. Peters. There are currently no women on the 32-county Northern District federal bench, though Judge Rosemary S. Pooler served from 1994 to 1998 and is now on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last month, the Capital District Women’s Bar Association celebrated 25 years of progress, and prepared for the battles to come. Next year, the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York will do the same. Jill A. Dunn, the 25th president of the Capital District group, became active during her first year of practice for the same reason other women joined — an opportunity to network and share common experiences and objectives. “I was the only female attorney in my law firm and I was practicing in an area of the law and in a court where I saw very few women attorneys,” said Dunn, a former criminal defense attorney who now serves as counsel and deputy commissioner with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. “In law school, my class was 50 percent women, so it never dawned on me that there would be a need to actively network with women because I was always surrounded by women. But in practice I saw very quickly when I walked into the courtroom — and from the judge to the prosecutor to the attorneys to the court reporters — all were men. I felt like I’d walked into a men’s locker room.” Dunn began her career with a highly regarded but all-male Albany firm now known as Dreyer Boyajian. Although she said her experiences there were nothing but positive — “One of the most important things I learned there was ethics. They are just at the top of the class” — a Women’s Bar connection led the young attorney into a heady position in state government: counsel to Lt. Gov. Mary O. Donohue, a former judge and prosecutor who had long been active with the Capital District group. “It was really networking through the Women’s Bar Association that we became friendly,” Dunn said of her relationship with the lieutenant governor. “Because we knew each other there was a level of trust.” Dunn’s agenda is in many ways no less ambitious than that of the group’s first president, Albany attorney Jane W. Williams. Judicial representation was and remains a goal. Although women now comprise a majority of the Court of Appeals and three of the four women on the high court (Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and Associate Judges Victoria A. Graffeo and Susan Phillips Read) are members of the group, representation on the local bench remains scarce. Earlier this fall, the organization held an unprecedented continuing legal education program where judges and lawyers, including Graffeo, provided insight into how to make the journey from bar to bench. “The face of the legal profession is changing,” Dunn said. “The face of the courts should change too.” Next spring, the group plans to sponsor a CLE program on family-friendly law firm policies. FAMILY-FRIENDLY POLICIES Dunn is alarmed at what she sees as an exodus of women attorneys from private firms and corporate practice to government jobs. Since the federal Family and Medical Leave Act applies only to businesses with more than 50 employees, at most only a handful of the law firms in the capital region are required to provide unpaid leave following the birth or adoption of a child or to cope with a family medical crisis. For most of the Albany-area firms, maternity leave and similar benefits are strictly optional. “Asking a potential employer in an interview about their maternity leave policy is a question no woman wants to ask,” Dunn said. So the Capital District Women’s Bar Association began a survey of every firm in the region, with the aim of providing that information to would-be applicants and, hopefully, igniting change. “Albany Law School’s first year class is 56 percent women,” Dunn said. “That should tell law firms that they have to have family-friendly policies in order to retain the best and brightest attorneys.” Actually, she said, several firms have already adopted progressive policies, and the bar group has gone out of its way to recognize partnerships that enable “parents to be successful parents as well as successful attorneys.” Two years ago, the Women’s Bar honored Carpenter & Cioffi, a small firm in Niskayuna that allows its employees to telecommute so they can better juggle their professional and family responsibilities. Last year, it recognized D’Agostino Krackeler Baynes & McGuire, a firm in Menands that was started by a single mother who is also one of the area’s most respected trial lawyers, Mae A. D’Agostino. This year, one of the oldest and largest Albany firms, O’Connell and Aronowitz, received the Carol S. Knox Family Friendly Employer Award. “It showed that a long-established, entrenched firm can change to meet the changing needs,” Dunn said. While it was formed shortly before the statewide organization, the Capital District Women’s Bar Association is one of 16 chapters of the 3,000-member Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY). Its former presidents include Judge Graffeo, Justice Stein and retired Albany City Court Judge Madonna Stahl. “It is exciting, but I feel like the relief pitcher for the Florida Marlins,” Dunn said on the historic significance of her term. “I came in the eighth inning of the seventh game when all the hard work was done, and I get to celebrate with everyone else, even though those before me did such great work.”

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