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No throwing in the towel for women in the legal profession

The days of molding yourself into an honorary man, forcing yourself into a work culture that doesn't fit are over. It's time to change the profession. Women lawyers have come a long, long way. And, by the way, don't call them "Baby."

Such was the message of the conference "Women in the Legal Profession," held April 5 at Crown Quad. Designed to bring together experienced attorneys and the next generation of lawyers, the conference offered insights into the problems, pitfalls and promises of a career in the Bar.

Women have made impressive strides since the mid-1970s, when there were few female law students and even fewer women on law school faculties. Back then, most women with J.D.s could hope for little more than legal secretary or attorney positions offering low pay, little prestige and no power, said Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, the conference's keynote speaker. In a sweeping historical overview, the author of Women in Law pointed out that in the late 1960s only 3 percent of the nation's lawyers were women; now they make up 23 percent.

"Once [women] won the legal battles that opened the door to law schools and also opened employment possibilities, from which they were barred without apology, they moved into the profession in droves," said Epstein, a sociology professor at City University of New York who has been studying the status of women in the profession for three decades. But Epstein pointed out that while opportunities at the entry level have opened up, women lawyers are running into obstacles at higher levels.

"Where once there was a single pipeline bringing only male recruits from elite backgrounds into the most prestigious areas of practice and policy, today there are a number of pipelines. Some pipes, however, are better than others, well-maintained, sleek and swift. Others, though recently built, can be characterized as having arterial sclerosis with plaque buildup that makes passage a little uncertain. The openness to women at the entry level has butted up against changes elsewhere in the system," Epstein said.

But Epstein cautioned against disillusionment. "In one sense our greater consciousness of issues of sexism and concern with discrimination against women have made us so sensitive that we're easily discouraged." Rather than acknowledging that things have improved, Epstein said, many women are "throwing in the towel."

After Epstein's keynote, participants in the conference, many of them Stanford law students, attended smaller panel discussions. Most of the panelists had some connection to Stanford, either as alumni or faculty members. In "Strategies for Success in Your Workplace," moderated by Stanford law Professor Barbara Fried, panelists offered advice on how to survive in more traditional settings such as law firms. Sallie Kim, the law school's associate dean for student affairs, moderated a panel comparing the socialization of men and women at work. Martha Matthews, Stanford lecturer and director of the law school's Family Advocacy Support program, led a discussion on alternative legal careers, a welcome session for some participants who felt Epstein's address focused too heavily on large firms.

For many of the seasoned professionals participating in the conference, however, working in a variety of spheres has proved to be the key to success. "There's been no towel throwing in by any of the women on this panel," said Stanford law Professor Janet Halley, who moderated an afternoon session on race, gender, age and family.

"Neither have they done just one thing. They've really changed as they have faced challenges. They're flexible, they're resourceful, adventurous. They, maybe more than once, have hit the wall, bounced back and then gone on to dismantle at least part of the wall," Halley added.

Associate Professor Linda Mabry, who worked in government, private industry and a traditional firm before she began teaching at Stanford, talked of coming of age as a lawyer in the '70s with no women of color to show the way. As an African American woman whose specialty is international trade and business transactions, Mabry said she has experienced disdain from both sides. "We are all very familiar with the problems stemming from suspicion by members of the club we're trying to join, about our ability to 'do the work and fit into the culture.' But what we seldom talk about is the pressure that we get from one or more of the subgroups that we belong to conform to what the group views as appropriate or legitimate professional goals and pursuits," said Mabry.

She said not only do white males in the profession view her as an anomaly, African Americans view her as practicing in an area that is not relevant. For many students concerned about diversity, the question is whether an African American professor who does not teach criminal, constitutional or civil rights law should be counted as a minority appointment.

"I can never forget who I am," said Mabry. "And when you walk out of your door and your new neighbors rush to hand you their garbage, you don't forget who you are. The views that others may have of you may have very little to do with your own sense of identity. Take time to find your vision and your voice," Mabry said, advising conference attendees to do what they love and what inspires them. She encouraged them to set limits on the principles they will not sacrifice, and most of all, she said, be humble. "We are here because we are fortunate, not because we are better. And we did not get here alone."

In introducing the panelists for the final session, called "Observations from the Front," Stanford law Professor Deborah Rhode reiterated some of the troubling statistics on women in the profession. Women now account for 45 percent of law students and almost a quarter of the bar, but they comprise less than a fifth of tenured facultym 13 percent of law firm partners, 10 percent of judges and 8 percent of law school deans.

"The underrepresentation cannot be explained simply by the disparities in the pools of eligible candidates," said Rhode, director of Stanford's Keck Center on Legal Ethics and the Legal Profession, a cosponsor of the one-day symposium. "The explanations for that situation fall into two general categories and they're ones that come through loudly and clearly today." Rhode pointed to "lingering though largely unconscious gender and racial bias, and unresponsiveness to work/family conflicts."

"There's still all too much evidence of sex-based stereotypes and covert prejudice reflected in people's different opportunities for mentoring business opportunities and desirable assignments," Rhode said. Women of color are assumed to be less competent, she said, and women with children are assumed to be less committed.

Barbara Babcock, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, was praised throughout the day for being a pioneer in the profession. Babcock encouraged women in the audience to go out and change the culture that allows for such stereotyping and bias to persist. She praised women for bringing about the achievements that have been made since she was a law student in the 1960s and encouraged them to take the next step ­ opening more doors to faculty members of color.

"When I was first here I just assumed that I was the beginning of a big wave of women that would be hired on the tenure track. But then it became very clear to me that they were going to see if I worked out before they hired a second one." She recalled a faculty meeting in which a female candidate who had graduated first in her class and had been editor in chief of the law review was being considered for a teaching position. "I was astounded to hear that she was found wanting. And people said, 'Well, we know Barbara needs a companion, but we can't lower our standards.'"

Babcock credited women lawyers for establishing the constitutional right to choose and for establishing sex discrimination and harassment as "causes of action in our courts." She said they have established feminist theory and other "women-centered subjects" as legitimate areas of legal scholarship.

"We are [now] a critical mass. . . . If we ever had a chance to change the profession, it's now. We couldn't do it before, although we did in some sense change it just by being there. But now we might actually change the whole structure ­ change how things are done, change how they're organized, change what the expectations are. I honestly believe that women lawyers can bring the profession back to the public-spirited, public-interested reconciliatory and redemptive work that is the law's tradition of the American legal profession," Babcock said.


By Elaine Ray