A Driving Force for Gender Equality:
Center for Women in Law Hosts Inaugural Summit
By Chana Garcia
Summit chair Diane C. Yu (standing) facilitates a discussion among distinguished panelists, featuring (L to R) Larry Sager, Mary Cranston, Hon. Carolyn Dineen King, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (ret.), Laura Stein, and Hon. Diane Wood.
The modest one-room office of the Center for Women in Law is deceiving: It’s small in size, but not in mission. Several years ago, a group of trailblazing women attorneys, concerned about the lack of women managing partners and the increasing number of women leaving the field altogether, challenged themselves to make a difference. They weren’t exactly sure what they’d come up with, but they had a few ideas about what to avoid.
A one-time event wouldn’t do. To have a measurable impact, their work needed to be ongoing. Financing their project was essential, but simply writing a check wouldn’t give them the hands-on involvement they envisioned. They wanted to provide a forum, but wanted to do more than just talk. This patchwork of requisites made for a tall order, but it ultimately gave birth to the historic Center for Women in Law.
Housed at the University of Texas Law School in Austin, the center is an expansive undertaking designed to advance the careers of women in the legal profession and address issues facing women attorneys. Its mission is to “convene leaders, generate ideas, and lead change.” The center’s founders and its supporters have cast their net wide, establishing the institution as part advocacy group, part think tank. By convening leaders and luminaries from the legal community, collecting research, and discussing the concerns of women attorneys, the center expects to be at the forefront of scholarship and change. “Beyond launching the center, one of our goals was to take stock of how far we’ve come,” explains executive director Hannah Brenner.“We know that much progress has been made, but we have been in a holding pattern over the past several decades. Women make up roughly 50 percent of law school graduates, but when you take a look at the profession’s leadership, you begin to see a disturbing disparity. We want to write and speak publicly about these and other issues that are important to women in the legal profession.”
Planting the Seeds Deep in the Heart of Texas
Many of the attorneys who form the core group of founders were students at UT’s law school in the ’70s, a time when women pursing the law as a career option wasn’t common. Women such as Cathy Lamboley, former general counsel of Shell Oil, were among the vanguard. And like all pioneers, they encountered their share of obstacles while navigating new territory. When they entered the workforce, they were often the first women at their companies or firms—a daunting and lonely milestone. Some delayed starting families to focus on their careers, only to find it difficult to gain access to choice clients or to meet goals set for billable hours. Possibly the most frustrating and pervasive issue went unseen but was widely known: Women attorneys earned 60 cents for every dollar earned by a man throughout the 1970s and ’80s.1 Today, that figure has increased slightly to about 77 cents—not the sort of progress women lawyers want to celebrate.2 “The irony is that we teach law students about inequity in pay,” Brenner reflects. “Here we are litigating and arguing against such inequity as part of our role as lawyers, and within our own industry we are experiencing it.”
The center hopes to encourage and lead discussions like this regularly. Considering its network of professional and academic resources, it’s in a unique position to do so. The group’s April kick-off event, the Women’s Power Summit on Law & Leadership, was attended by more than 150 women lawyers from the nation’s top firms, Fortune 500 corporations, the judiciary, nonprofits, and government. The event featured three days of networking, strategizing, panel discussions, and a speaker series that included former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, former Young & Rubicam Brands CEO Ann Fudge, and White House Project founder and president Marie Wilson.
“The Women’s Power Summit was a historic gathering of women lawyers who are at the top leadership levels in the key sectors of the U.S. legal profession and are all committed to advancing the status of women,” reflects summit chair Diane C. Yu, chief of staff and deputy to the president of New York University and former chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. “It was the first time in the country that an effort this ambitious has been attempted, and both the collective spirit of the attendees and their eagerness to work together to achieve long-stalled gender equity in the bar were extraordinary.”
The fact that those early generations of women lawyers made it all possible is not lost on those following in their footsteps. The inroads they forged through their struggles and sacrifices, notes Susan Blount, general counsel of Prudential and a UT Law School graduate, laid crucial groundwork. “Part of what you’re seeing now is a substantial and critical mass of women who have been in the workforce awhile and have been successful in their careers,” she explains. “They have the means and the interest in founding a center like this. It might be based in the state of Texas, but the center has national ambitions, and it is committed to women’s issues.”
Cyndi Nance (L), dean of University of Arkansas College of Law, and Hon. Barbara M.G. Lynn catch up during the summit networking reception.
For Adrienne Suarez, an attorney in Hawaii who participated in the intergenerational panel discussion, attending the summit came about somewhat by chance. Suarez wrote an essay, titled “A Code of Ethics for Female Attorneys,” for a competition held by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession for law students and attorneys under the age of 36. She didn’t win, but her essay caught the attention of commission members who forwarded it to the center. Her piece, which examines the behaviors and habits of successful relationships between women lawyers, became a framework for the panel discussion.
Led by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a partner at Bowditch & Dewey and executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success, the discussion sought to dispel artificial barriers that promote disunity and to explore the generational divide. “As a law student, I didn’t think about whether female attorneys continued to face uphill battles,” reflects Suarez, who represented the younger generation of women lawyers on the panel. “All around me, the most outspoken, brilliant, and involved students were female, and women made up over half of my class. I just assumed that our law school successes would naturally extend into our careers. It wasn’t until I was in the profession for a few years that I noticed that the women around me—even ones who had made it—seemed disquieted about work/life balance and professional advancement. But we didn’t talk about it. What powerful conversations we could have had! I know if I had been part of these conversations earlier in my career, my perspective on being a woman in law would have snapped into focus.”
A Public Declaration to Measure Progress
One of the more talked-about items to emerge from the summit was the Austin Manifesto, a document that evolved during the plenary sessions. The manifesto is a list of pledges that lays out in impressive detail the goals and principles articulated by summit attendees. Among them are calls for gender parity in compensation and advancement opportunities, examining the prevailing business model for law firms (which many say impairs the advancement of women and increases attrition), and promoting diversity in decision-making and professional opportunities, including bar association leadership.
The manifesto has become a source of pride for summit attendees. That their efforts produced something tangible—a decree that has already been adopted by the National Association of Women Lawyers, as well as dozens of individual women attorneys—provides proof that the center is headed in the right direction.
“We didn’t want to convene a conference where everyone just spoke. We wanted to be aggressive,” shares Nina Cortell, a partner with Haynes and Boone in Dallas and a founder of the center. “We wanted to come away with an action plan. Even though we may not be able to meet all of our priorities, the hope is that, over the lifetime of the center, we will realize real change and accomplish our goals.”
(L to R) Lauren Eaton Prescott,* Catherine Lamboley,* Claudia Frost,* Colleen Burnie (UT law student), Hannah Brenner, Nina Cortell,* William Powers Jr., Linda Addison,* Diane C. Yu, and Martha Smiley*
(*founder of the Center for Women in Law)
The April summit was the group’s initial effort to accomplish these objectives, and has much more in the works. The center’s founders are currently working on implementing other programs that will further the center’s mission, including a speaker series and classes at the University of Texas Law School, as well as future gatherings of leaders in the profession. Another project is to set up an online bibliography of pertinent articles, journals, and statistics. Included in that will be Suarez’s “Code of Ethics.” The young attorney from the Aloha State had forgotten about her essay after the competition, never expecting that it would lead her to a brainstorming session with powerful attorneys whose work she admired. But by the end of the summit, Suarez was receiving much of the praise. She may not have won that contest, but she certainly won hearts in Austin and beyond. DB
1 See National Women’s Law Center, Sex Discrimination in the American Workplace: Still a Fact of Life (July 2000), available at www.nwlc.org/details.cfm?id=316§ion=employment.
From the July/August 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®