The big picture in Big Law was drastically different 30 years ago when women were paid much less than men, had very few positions of power and—in some cases—would walk into a room and be mistaken for the court reporter.
Those days are fading, female lawyers say, but inequities in pay, power and prestige in many of the largest law firms still exist. Several female attorneys who have made the climb to partner tell the Connecticut Law Tribune that there have been strides, but they say much more still needs to be done to smash through the glass ceiling.
The issue of gender equality in the legal profession has been a career-long mission for Greenberg Traurig’s Hilarie Bass, the Miami-based attorney who has been with Greenberg for 37 years, including the past six as its co-president.
Bass is so passionate about women achieving equity and equality in Big Law that she’s leaving the firm next month to work full-time for diversity and inclusion. She will work with law firms to ensure women achieve the respect, power and compensation they deserve—on par with their male counterparts.
She and other high-powered female attorneys told the Connecticut Law Tribune that mentorship and sponsorship are vital. They also agreed the issue of implicit bias must be addressed head-on, but they disagreed to some extent on the progress female attorneys have made over the past few decades.
“I see a lot of women in powerful positions in Connecticut, myself included,” she said. “It is definitely increasing since I started. I think law firms, like mine, are recognizing that they need to retain their female talent more than ever. A lot of our clients are women, such as in health care, and they want to hire women attorneys.”
Bass, though, said: ”After 37 years in Big Law, I was shocked to realize how little progress we’ve made. It’s important to me, personally, to know that 30 years from now we are not having the same conversation.”
It’s also important to note that pay and partner inequities are not exclusive to Big Law, Bass said.
“These problems are common in any male-dominated profession,” Bass said.
Past president of the American Bar Association, Bass said she did significant research on topics important to women in law.
One interesting fact: dwindling numbers as women advance in law.
“We found that women start their first job in equal numbers with men, but by age 50 almost half of the women have left,” Bass said. “One of the things women complain about is inherent, complicit bias in elevations and compensation. Every study shows that there is a 20 cents per dollar pay gap between men and women in law and the firm’s minority women pay gap is even greater.”
If any progress is to be made, Bass said, the issue of implicit bias must be addressed.
Rhonda Tobin, a partner with Connecticut’s powerhouse firm Robinson & Cole, echoed Bass in saying, “We are not seeing overt discrimination as we did in the past, but implicit bias has now become the focus. You need to make people aware of their unconscious views and sensitize people to think outside of the box. Law firms must look for ways we can do better and, when they find them, act.”
Tobin, who has been with Robinson & Cole for 28 years and is co-chair of the firm’s litigation section and a member of its managing committee, said an example of implicit bias could entail “people unconsciously reaching out to work with people who are like them. They may not even realize what they are doing.”
Tobin and Ioannou agree implicit bias exists, even though the outright discrimination and comments have, for the most part, gone away.
Tobin said “I don’t feel like I am being judged differently anymore because I am a woman. I just don’t feel it.”
Mistaken for the Court Reporter
Ioannou said she doesn’t feel “patronized anymore. There was a lot of patronizing 20 years ago. I can recall being asked what I did and when I said, ‘a lawyer,’ I would get patronizing responses.”
When she was starting out as a new lawyer, Ioannou said, she’d be mistaken for the court reporter. And it happened more than once.
“I consider it progress that those comments do not occur anymore and that society has evolved,” she said. “We have not broken the glass ceiling, but we have a lot of cracks in it. We are getting there.”
Retaining and sponsoring women is a major focus in Big Law today, female leaders said.
“The key to retaining women is that younger female attorneys need to see a path to success,” Tobin said. “More junior women need to look up and see women that have made it. It’s harder to see a path to success if you can’t see someone who looks like you doing the job. They want to look up and see women partners. They want to look up and see women leaders, and they want to look up and see women who are business generators.”
Robinson & Cole, Tobin said, offers a lunch-and-learn series where successful women speak on how they excelled.
While mentoring has and continues to be an important part of most law firms, Tobin said the future lies in a different type of support.
“Sponsorship is someone who has a direct role in advocating for you when you are not in the room,” she said. “It might be advocating for you to work on a big case, and it might be advocating for you to be involved in a client pitch. It could also be advocating that you assume a leadership post in the firm or, ultimately, become partner.”
Noting that for the first time ever, more women graduated law school than men in 2018, Tobin believes there is more light at the end of the tunnel for female attorneys in Big Law.
“The future is bright,” she said. “If more than 50 percent of the people coming out of law school are women, that will ensure there will be a better pool of talent to promote down the road.”