Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Women and the Law

by Katherine Scardino

Arabella Mansfield is a name no one, other than Arabella’s mother, is likely to recognize today. Ms. Arabella Mansfield, born on May 23, 1846, became the first female lawyer in the United States when she was admitted to take the Iowa bar in 1869. Arabella never actually went to a law school. She studied in her brother’s law office before taking the bar exam, which she passed with high scores. Ms. Mansfield achieved this despite a state law restricting bar exam applicants to white males over 21 years of age. Later in her career, Arabella was active in the women’s suffrage movement. She chaired the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1870 and worked with Susan B. Anthony. Unfortunately, she died in 1911, too early to see the movement’s ultimate achievement, passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 -- granting women the right to vote.

One other woman before Arabella Mansfield also fought a hard battle  advancing women’s rights within in the legal profession. Ada Harriet Miser Kepley, born in 1847, became the first American woman to graduate from law school in 1870. However, as a woman, she was denied a license to practice law. Therefore, Ms. Kepley did not officially became a lawyer until 1881, when the Illinois law barring women from practicing the learned professions was overturned.

Ironically, around the same time in 1880, Teddy Roosevelt wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on the issue of “The Practicality of Equalizing Men and Women Before the Law.” Mr. Roosevelt wrote: “Viewed purely in the abstract, I think there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men,” and “Especially as regards the laws relating to marriage, there should be the most absolute equality between the two sexes. I do not think the woman should assume the man’s name.” In Teddy Roosevelt’s autobiography, published in 1913, he wrote: “Much can be done by law towards putting women on a footing of complete and entire equal rights with man - including the right to vote, the right to hold and use property, and the right to enter any profession she desires on the same terms as the man.”

In the late 1800's and early 1900's the ideas of Teddy Roosevelt, Arabella Mansfield and Ada Kepley were radical. The rights that both men and women enjoy today were handed to us on a silver platter. Many of us simply assume that men and women should be treated equally. But we can't forget that men and women fought long and hard so that we can enjoy the most basic human rights in this country.

While rights among men and women are more balanced in the modern U.S. than in the 18th and 19th centuries, are they really treated equally on all fronts? Here are a few statistics:
* Female students make up a little less than half of law school classes.
* Women make up nearly one out of every two law firm associates, but only one out of every six equity partners.
* Women were general counsels at 82 of the Fortune 500 companies in 2008.
* The highest paid lawyer at 99 percent of law firms was a man, the firms reported.
* Female lawyers earned 80.5  percent of male lawyers’ salaries in 2008.

Full-time female lawyers are often faced with a balancing act that would floor a man at the first hurdle. For married full-time lawyers -- especially married full-time lawyers who are also mothers,  the daily responsibilities and requirements are almost impossible to accomplish. During the mid-'80s I was a “newbie” lawyer, and my children were very young. I was expected to do my work in the morning hours, and be home by 3:00 pm to greet the children from school. After working a full day in the office, I was expected to cook, clean, and care for my children and husband, as would any devoted mother and wife. The reality is that schedule is unworkable. Lawyers face daily crises that usually interfere with a mother's need to be home by mid-afternoon. It simply doesn't work.

It's little wonder that levels of alcoholism and addiction among lawyers has climbed steadily over the past few years. Help lines are jammed with calls from distressed lawyers, particularly women. Women in other professions face similar difficulties, but the legal profession is one that requires especially long working hours and intense competition. We've all seen films that highlight those pressures, such as The Firm. They were intensified during the recession in which some of the world's biggest legal firms collapsed and senior management were ousted.

“Why don’t you just quit?” That's a good question. If the pressure is more than you can bear, why not just go to work for a small company? You can go home at 5:00 p.m., and no one will call you at midnight to tell you about their son or daughter was arrested for a DWI, burglary, assault, or domestic violence, etc. Being a good lawyer usually requires Type A personality, which involves competitiveness and obstinacy. In turn, these qualities tend to keep you in a profession that can drive you insane. It doesn't help that Type A personalities are generally perfectionists as well. We impose our own pressures -- to be the best lawyer, best mother, best housekeeper, best wife, best friend and best colleague. It's precisely this quality that propels female lawyers up the ladder of success but also pushes them off. Add postpartum depression to the mix and it can prove fatal.

Women still face the demands of their male partners; i.e., cook dinner, entertain, sex (god forbid!!) and a myriad of other requests. The stories of what women lawyers do to multitask are legion. How many women have their babies in their office during working hours? Breast feeding and dabbing calamine lotion on chicken pox while researching a pressing search-and-seizure issue?

So have we “made it”? The honorable U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the latest woman appointed to the nation's highest court, a great achievement. But what does that do for our lives on a daily basis? Most likely ... nothing.

The ratio of demands in the workplace versus the demands in our personal lives is lopsided. The pressure from this inequality causes lawyer burnout, which runs highest for women. After all this whining about pressure, not enough time, competition, wanting less stress in our jobs, we then hear about a woman named Alice Thomas. Alice is 79 years old and just finished law school in December 2009, with a $70,000 student loan to repay. She reported to the Sacramento Bee that she always wanted to be a lawyer to take a “nibble” at some of the world’s injustices. Ms. Thomas will be at least 80 by the time she passes the bar exam, which she expects to take either in California or Nevada next month.

Female lawyers in a male-driven profession also face potential gender bias and sexism in the courtroom. Have you ever been called “little lady” from the bench by a male judge? If so, I hope it was many years ago. Men have become fairly educated about dealing with women in the workplace. Blatant gender bias is generally rare today. Reforms to eliminate gender bias in the courts, such as judicial education programs addressing inequities for both female  lawyers and female clients, may be part of the reason for this shift. It's not a trivial issue to ensure that female lawyers are addressed appropriately in court. Judges are incorporating skills for overcoming bias into their community, their administrative policies, and their decision making.

TV has served as a tool to advance the perceptions of female lawyers. One of my all-time favorite characters is “Shirley Schmidt” (Candice Bergen) in Boston Legal. In one of the most memorable scenes, Shirley is walking down the hall when she stops a young woman lawyer wearing a low-cut top and miniskirt. Shirley asks: “Are you a lawyer? Then go home, change your clothes and dress the part. We need women who appear the way a jury expects them to appear.” This wardrobe advice is pertinent. Today's young female attorneys should take a second look at Shirley Schmidt. Or Lara Flynn Boyle on The Practice, or Angie Harmon on Law and Order. These women reflect style, confidence, and femininity without being sexualized. Not all of us can look like the women on television, but we can appear in the courtroom “the way a jury expects” us to appear.

Several years ago, a study reported that 75 percent of women surveyed said they felt their commitment to family and personal life hindered their advancement. At first, the work/life balance issue was perceived as a “mommy” issue. Female professionals, including lawyers, were put on the “mommy track,” taken off committees and excluded from good clients.

We're supposed to be in a new era now. Judges aren't calling us “little ladies” or making suggestive remarks to us. One reason might be that about half of today's judges are female, at least in my jurisdiction.

Just as in the earliest days, female attorneys should dress in a business-like manner. There has never been a time when a female lawyer should not hold herself out as proud, efficient and sensitive. Today they also must be assertive, competitive, and confident in their offices  and courtrooms. And they have to be able to achieve the ultimate in multitasking, handling work and personal household chores and duties. No one said it was easy, but for the right personality, it's challenging and rewarding.

But it's also stressful. Some women tell me that the hardest job they have is finding some “me” time. There must be some time set aside just for you, as a woman, to do something that you enjoy -- working out, gardening, reading, walking, learning Italian or taking wrestling lessons. Whatever you truly enjoy and can do to release the tension from your “other” lives, find it and do it.

Don’t forget we are wonder women. We have made it through law school, the bar exam, gender-biased judges, co-workers, clients and other lawyers. It's not impossible; sometimes it just seems like it is.

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