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ABA Section of Business Law


ABA Section of Business Law
Business Law Today
March / April 2000


The times, they are . . .Being a woman business lawyer today — eight tales

By KRISTEN SCHMIDT

Women business lawyers are in a unique position they work in what is often still considered a man’s world, a world that is changing rapidly. They certainly don’t look to Ally McBeal for inspiration.

The number of female lawyers in America rocketed from about 94,000 to about 260,000 from 1983 to 1997, according to the 1997 United States Statistical Abstract. Of all lawyers in the United States, 30 percent are women. Law school classes reflect more of the same — most schools are about half men and half women. Only 15.1 percent of LL.B. or J.D. degrees were awarded to women in 1975. In 1996, 43.5 percent of those degrees went to women.

What follows are short conversations with eight women in business law today. They come from different generations, and each one has had a unique experience as a woman in business law.

 

Michele Corash remembered her first business meeting with a wry laugh. A client started dictating to her, assuming she was a secretary. Corash graduated from New York University Law School in 1970, with only seven other women.

"When I started practicing, it seems there was an issue of clients not knowing if they were on a date or at a business dinner," she said. But times have changed, and Corash doesn’t think her gender is an issue anymore.

Corash had a male mentor in Ira Millstein, a partner with the New York firm of Weil Gotschal & Manges, and a great supporter of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"He had a professional wife and a child himself. He was bound and determined that this was going to work," Corash said. "The obstacles were not going to get in the way."

In 1970, she worked on the first false advertising case involving children. The Federal Communications Commission’s two lawyers were women, Nancy Buck and Jody Bernstein. Corash was working with Millstein at the time. The client was convinced he was being taken to court because women were involved, and put Corash on the case because he felt the FCC needed "someone who spoke their language."

Corash remembers having to sneak in the back door of dinner clubs that didn’t admit women for business dinners. She also recalls having to explain "physical contact was not part of the deal" to clients.

"At senior levels of business, you still see a very suited world. I look at the young men I work with and I can’t believe it would matter to them — but you look at CEOs and you don’t see that. I have women clients, but an overwhelming number of clients are men, and heads of corporations continue to be men," Corash said.

She cited corporate finance and securities as areas of business law without many women. "I can find no objective reason why you don’t see more women in these fields. Women work every bit as hard as the men."

Though Corash has no children, she has the highest respect for her colleagues who balance career and family.

"I just marvel at my women partners and associates. I think they’re phenomenal, and I don’t think most men could do it. I truly admire them."

Corash has been a partner at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco for 12 years.

 

For Phoenix lawyer Barbara Dawson, who graduated law school in 1988, being a woman hasn’t been such an influential factor.

"We had a much easier time — the business world was used to seeing women, though some individuals from corporations were still surprised to hear a woman’s name attached to their case," said Dawson, the mother of a 2-year-old child.

"Being on maternity leave made me realize how much I enjoy what I do — I found I really love being a mother, but I was happy I had the other side of my life," Dawson said. She has stayed on full-time and is a member of her firm, Snell & Wilmer LLP.

"Technology is a wonderful thing — I was able to stay involved during my maternity leave. My firm has accommodated women who have made different choices. I feel there’s a lot of support here for women to professionally advance."

While she was growing up, Dawson’s role models were women in her family and the community in traditional roles; she didn’t know a single lawyer when she entered law school. But she found a role model in federal District Judge Roslyn Silver.

"She’s a positive role model for women in the Southwest. She’s taken a path that had not been blazed by women before," Dawson said. Silver, the first woman on the federal district court in Arizona, mentors both men and women.

 

"Very few people grow up saying, ‘gee, I want to be a corporate lawyer’," said Lynne Barr, who originally envisioned herself as a criminal lawyer. But when she went to work at the Federal Reserve Board, she specialized in consumer protection issues and banking-related legal work.

"I was fortunate to work at the Fed. There were more women than men in the department. It was a good position for a woman just starting out," she said.

Barr graduated from George Washington University Law School in 1975, at the beginning of the first big increase of women in law. About a quarter of her class was female.

"I think there are certain people out there who react differently to a woman who’s assertive than to a man who’s assertive, and that can sometimes be a positive. I’m a very assertive person, and that can sometimes be a negative. In more than 20 years of practice, I’ve been in situations where people reacted negatively — you might be in a negotiation when a woman lawyer says, ‘OK, that’s it, we’re done,’ and stops negotiations. They don’t expect a woman to do that," Barr said.

"I grew up in a family where there was no distinction between what boys and girls did — my older sister is a doctor. That was not only encouraged, but it was expected," said Barr, who was the first woman corporate partner at Goodwin, Procter & Hoar in Boston.

Elizabeth Yen never intended to go into business law. For summer jobs, she clerked with small plaintiffs’ litigation boutiques, but found she couldn’t work in the litigation department at a more traditional corporate business-law firm because of conflicts of interest from the clerkships. Instead, she happened to be assigned to business-law matters in the banking department as a first-year associate.

"I don’t know that being a woman in business law is any different than being a woman in litigation," Yen said. "Most of my clients are in-house counsel, and they’re my age, and about a third of them are female — gender is ignored."

There are 85 lawyers in her firm, and a lot of them are women. The tendency is for incoming classes to be split evenly between genders.

When she started, Yen felt her age was a bigger handicap than her gender. One of her first clients, the president of a small bank, was old enough to be her father. And he knew it.

"You could tell he was envisioning taking advice from his daughter," Yen said.

"In one situation, the combination of my gender, age and ethnicity sent one gentleman into enormous discomfort, but I think that’s the exception that proves the rule. That was the one time I had a client ask me where I went to school. He asked for representative clients — what he really wanted was a C.V. But I don’t think it was gender," said Yen, a member of Pullman & Comley, LLC in Bridgeport, Conn.

"I was 26 and I was a woman — those were two strikes against me in the late ’70s," said Carolan Berkley, who was the first woman partner in the business and finance department at her firm, Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP, in Philadelphia. "I didn’t want to be a teacher, and I didn’t have friends who had become business people. But I knew other lawyers."

"I came to a firm that was supportive of women. The firm had a female partner and female associates," Berkley said. That partner wasn’t necessarily a mentor, but she was always there for the women in the firm, and supported Berkley through her 1986 divorce.

"People say they enjoy working with women more, because women in general get right to business." With the growth of women in law firms and among clients, Berkley said, "they’re getting used to us."

"It’s rare, but every once in a while, we’ll have an all-female deal where the client and all the lawyers are women — and we always say something about it," Berkley said.

She raised her two children on her own after her divorce. "It’s more difficult today to balance being a parent and a lawyer than it was when I started. My kids think I work too hard, but I tell them I’m a better mother because I’m happy."

Amy Kyle had a long-time interest in business — her grandfather was a banker, her father was in real estate, and her mother ran a YMCA. She now does finance, transportation, acquisition financing and equity investment work as a partner at Bingham Dana LLP in Boston. She graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1983.

"When I started looking for work in Boston, a lot of firms had exceedingly male memberships and were not welcoming to women. But Bingham Dana was a more welcoming place. It’s important having male partners who are real advocates of women," Kyle said.

There have been huge changes over the past 15 years, she said. "Clients would have a resistance to a female on the job, and now more clients are women."

Kyle recognizes the rise in the number of men out there struggling with balancing work and family, and has seen several men cut their hours to accommodate family time.

She stressed the importance of having a male partner at the firm who wasn’t afraid to help a younger female associate. Women will sometimes break down in tears in front of the partners, and while that makes men uncomfortable, someone will pass a tissue. Kyle said that kind of reaction is what makes her firm a great place to work. Her firm also provides emergency day care to its employees.

Baltimore lawyer Carla Stone Witzel will never forget her interview for her first job at a law firm — a partner at the firm took her out to the Playboy Club for lunch.

"Times have changed — a lot," said Witzel, who graduated law school in 1976. "I didn’t feel I was in an adverse position as a woman. There were a fair number of women at law school."

"We’re easy to work with," she said. "We try to serve the needs of our clients far better. We’re much more service-oriented." Witzel is a member at Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander LLC.

She has successfully balanced career and family with the help of her husband, who sacrificed a lot and took on a lot of the burden of raising the children while she worked. She has two sons.

"When [my sons] were little, a lot of my friends were women lawyers. One of my sons was about 6 years old, and he asked me, ‘mommy, can boys be lawyers too?’ They’re proud of me — they’re happy I’ve had a career. It was a challenge, though — there were times when it seemed very tough. You have to get used to not doing anything the way you’d like to. You have to compromise."

Witzel strongly advises young women thinking about business law as a profession to start with the idea of being a rainmaker.

"From Day One, think of becoming a partner. We’re used to being in helping roles. Our goal is to run our own business. Learn to crow a little bit, and do it sooner rather than later."

The glass ceiling and double standard are alive and well for Palo Alto, Calif. lawyer Smeeta Rishi.

"Women have to choose between success and family — I had to make the choice to leave my child with someone else for 60 hours a week," she said. Rishi has decided to leave her firm and go out on her own so she can spend more time with her child, who is 4.

"I can’t do it all — I can’t be great at everything I do. My goal is to be good at everything I do, both lawyer and mother."

Rishi said working in smaller firms is especially difficult for women with families because they tend to be less understanding and more interested in the bottom line. By starting her own practice, Rishi hopes, she will make more money while removing a layer of stress and having the satisfaction of being accountable only to herself.

Women are naturals at transactional work, Rishi said, because being creative and having common goals are values society teaches women in a gender-specific way.

"If you’re comfortable in adversarial positions, go into litigation. Transactional work gives women the opportunity to do what society teaches them to do — to nurture and to solve problems."

"Bottom line: It’s hard for women to be in any profession — you have to make choices with your job, your children and your spouse, and you have to understand the consequences. Kids need parents around and spouses need time together. You need to decide what you want to succeed at, because you can’t succeed at everything."

 

Schmidt is a freelance writer in Champaign, Ill

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