The practice of law has changed tremendously over the past three decades. When I graduated from law school as one of 13 women in a class of 360 students, women lawyers — especially litigators — were not commonplace. Typically, we were limited to fields like trusts and estates and family law. When I interviewed at the district attorney’s office, they prohibited women from working murders or other felonies, and the U.S. attorney’s office wouldn’t let women work on criminal cases. Most large firms would not hire women, either. I chose an atypical job, becoming a litigator in a plaintiffs’ personal injury practice. Even then I was warned not to let people know I could type, because the fear was that they would start using me as a secretary. When I joined the Women’s Bar Association, there were only three women justices in the entire New York state supreme court system, and none of them were appellate judges.
Women entered the profession in larger groups in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, opportunities for women lawyers had improved considerably. During much of that time I was teaching in law schools — first at Fordham, and then New York University. But in the early 1980s I also started working as “of counsel” at Skadden, defending products liability and mass tort cases. The sheer amount of change really struck me as I walked into a courtroom to argue a motion, and both my adversary and the judge were women.
In products liability, one of the most important developments for women was the breast implant litigation of the early- and mid-1990s. Defendants believed that women trial lawyers were more effective in defending these cases, and thus a whole generation of women lawyers began to get experience as lead trial lawyers.
By the year 2000, there were many more women in corporate law departments — including general counsel — and clients really began to give women lawyers much more acceptance, and it became much more common for women to be leading the representation for a company.
Another area in which women have made remarkable strides is in the judiciary. In New York, women make up 32 percent of the state court judges, and in many states the percentage is even higher. And these women judges are in leadership roles, serving as state chief justices and, in the federal system, as the chair of various rules committees appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Although women lawyers have come a long way in three decades, we still have obstacles to overcome. For example, women are underrepresented in the top leadership positions at large law firms. But I am confident that women lawyers will attain those leadership positions in law firms and corporations. It is so encouraging to see the large numbers of women graduating from law schools. As we continue to make up roughly half of those entering the profession, it is only natural that women will continue to fill areas of leadership and public service.
Congratulations to the NLJ on its last 34 years. I look forward to reading its chronicle of developments in the legal profession for many, many more.