There is much focus in the U.S. on where women in law are as compared to men; the constant answer is that there are fewer women in top positions, despite the hefty work being done by organizations and individuals to push female attorneys into the national legal spotlight. And it is worth taking a look at multiple roles within firms and how they pan out when it comes to closing the gender position gap. The arbitration community is one such sector of the legal world that bears examination when it comes to leveling the playing field, and — taking it outside the U.S. — international arbitration brings another perspective. Bringing some insight into the role of women in law — particularly in intellectual property and international arbitration is Felicia Boyd, partner and firm-wide co-chair of the Intellectual Property group at Barnes & Thornburg, with years of experience in intellectual property litigation and representing clients in proceedings before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In an interview with InsideCounsel, Boyd conveyed the ups and downs of not only being a female attorney, but working in intellectual property and as an arbitrator in international cases. She noted that one driver of fewer women in IP is the foundational lack of women pursuing degrees in science and technical fields followed by legal degrees. Historically, women have not pursued that educational path as frequently as men, thus, Boyd says: “This smaller pool of women translates to fewer women with an intellectual property background who are then subsequently qualified to work in arbitration either domestically and internationally.” Encouraging women to pursue science/math/technical degrees would be a solid first step towards on boarding more female attorneys into IP.

Boyd is also a qualified fellow in the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb) — a professional membership organization representing the interests of alternative dispute practitioners worldwide. Of the 13,000 members in more than 120 countries who have professional training in private dispute resolution, a small percentage is fellow-qualified, and a fraction of those qualified are women.

This qualification has given Boyd a unique perspective on the challenges for women in arbitration. She notes that one of the biggest challenges is being appointed as an arbitrator by an institution or selected by the parties involved. Less than 10 percent of appointed arbitrators are female — a statistic that is slow in changing — and she points out the vicious cycle that occurs in arbitrator selection processes: “The historical process of arbitral selection and appointment has apparently created a closed group of male arbitrators who are frequently appointed and in turn appoint others, mostly male, with whom they have worked successfully.” 

Encouraging companies to participate in the arbitration process to consider selecting women as arbitrators would be one way of breaking that traditional cycle. Boyd says that the decreasing numbers of women in law firms with arbitration practices who proceed from associate to partner also throws a wrench in the progress of female arbitrators. With all of these factors on the table, it appears as though a sort-of grassroots-type initiative must be in place to elevate women through the levels of traditionally male-dominated legal work, beginning with encouraging certain higher education pursuance.


Further reading:

International law takes center stage at Global Lawyer Forum

The work/life conundrum: Trying to be Super Mom and Super Lawyer 

Gender pay gap does not apply to CEOs