Sooner or later, anyone in a leadership role will need to answer the question, “Why a women’s bar”? Here are some thoughts on the subject.
A women’s bar’s blending of attorneys across fields of practice and large or small geographic areas enhances the possibility of referrals. When potential clients ask for an attorney, the referrals will go to lawyers who are known personally or by reputation.
For each individual who is asked to make a referral, there are serious limits on the available pool of referrals. One can only personally know a relatively limited number of people. It’s difficult to evaluate the expertise of lawyers outside one’s own practice or geographic area.
Women’s bars enhance the possibility of referrals based on personal knowledge: they bring together women practitioners in a variety of fields of practice, and sometimes bring them together across geographic boundaries.
Women’s bars also enhance the possibility of referral based on evaluation of expertise. A quick call to a friend who practices in the field can give one an inside look at the reputation of a lawyer in a given area of law.
Some specific examples:
An employment defense attorney is asked to handle a residential real estate closing. She remembers recently meeting an attorney active in the women’s bar association who emphasizes residential real estate and refers the matter to her.
A patent attorney active in the women’s bar is seen as the “guru” of intellectual property to all her acquaintances in her local women’s bar. Whenever their clients need trademark or copyright advice, hers is the first name that pops into their minds. If she can’t help, she refers the attorney to other competent lawyers.
Sometimes there are clients who specifically request women lawyers. When this happens, often a women’s bar association is the starting point for a referral. This can even happen state-to-state. The client of a Hawaii woman lawyer was purchasing a piece of commercial property in suburban Portland, Oregon. The client wanted a woman lawyer in Oregon, so the Hawaii woman lawyer called Oregon Women Lawyers for help.
Substantive Legal Advice or Practice Assistance
The connections made in a women’s bar often lead to a level of comfort which allows people to pick up the phone and ask a question of someone whom they’ve met at an event or come to know through committee work. This is especially true for new lawyers or lawyers who are asked to do something outside their general area of expertise. A simple “I’ve been asked to do such and such…Where do I start?” will usually be graciously received by a women’s bar colleague.
Another anecdote: An experienced corporate lawyer in a large urban practice needed to get some documents from a domestic relations proceeding in a rural area. She didn’t personally know any attorneys in the region. She used her statewide women’s bar directory, phoned someone listed in the relevant practice area, who connected her with the right local resource. Within one half hour, the documents were faxed to her. Her partners were impressed with how quickly she had handled her client’s problem.
Women lawyers share common concerns. The issues for each individual vary, but among the many members of a women’s bar one will find appropriate mentors. Through taking an active role in a women’s bar, women lawyers can find advice and comfort from other lawyers who have faced similar issues. Many friendships begin and flourish in women’s bar associations. In addition, some women’s bar associations have formal mentor programs to reach out to law students or newer practitioners.
Just as in the case of an all-girls school, virtually all committee and leadership positions in a women’s bar are held by women. This means that there are plenty of opportunities for women to develop new leadership skills or be recognized for their existing abilities. Frequently leaders who have been visible in their women’s bar association transition to leadership positions in state or local bar associations. Generally a women’s bar association is a more forgiving environment for learning bar politics. Being active in a women’s bar can be a quick way to leapfrog into leadership in other legal or nonlegal organizations.
Source of Expertise
Women’s bar associations are viewed by the larger legal community, and sometimes by the public, as the place to go for expertise in various areas. If there is a highly visible case on sexual harassment, the press may turn to the women’s bar association for comment. If the local bar association has been criticized for not having many women speakers on CLE panels, the women’s bar association is where they often turn for assistance.
“Political” Visibility of Women’s Issues
Issues traditionally of concern to women’s bar associations include such topics as pay equity, the glass ceiling, rainmaking, balancing family and career, sexual harassment, gender bias and increasing the presence of women and minorities on the bench and in other high-status positions. Virtually all of these issues can be highly charged and can easily be swept under the table in traditional bar associations. Because of the specific mission and relative size of women’s bar associations, the spotlight on difficult issues can be maintained. The mere presence of a women’s bar association is sometimes enough to keep issues of particular concern to women lawyers on the agenda of traditional bars.
Why join a women’s bar? Even if you cannot or choose not to take an active role, the women’s bar still needs to count you as a member. Women’s bar associations are not well funded, so they need your financial support in order to survive. Whether or not you know it, if you are a woman lawyer who is well established in the legal profession, you are looked upon as a role model. Other women are curious when they notice that prominent women attorneys are not members of their women’s bar association. Membership is a way of acknowledging the value of the community of women. For the established practitioner, it is a way of giving something back to that community.
Here are thoughts from the co-founder of the Finger Lakes Women’s Bar Association: Why Do We Need Women’s Bar Associations?
Although the following article was first published in 2001, it is still timely today: We Still Need Women’s Bar Associations
And from the Women Lawyers Association of Greater St. Louis: Why A Women’s Bar?