Women in the Law

From Law School Majority to Practicing Minority

GW Law’s 2014 Reunion Weekend was packed with fun events and poignant award ceremonies, but it also provided alumni with opportunities for serious discussions about important topics in the law. The issue of women in the law was a major focus of this year’s Reunion Weekend, thanks in large part to the Class of 1984 Committee members, who, as they planned for their 30th reunion weekend, realized that many of their women classmates were no longer practicing in the traditional legal sense. The ensuing discussions over email and conference calls inspired them to create a survey to learn more. 

“Women make up a majority of law students, but then that rate drops when you look at legal practice. Where are women going? What are they doing? We wanted to know,” explains committee member Lisa Mednick Owen, JD ’84. 

The report, “Women in the Law: From Law School Majority to Practicing Minority,” includes feedback from 77 classmates, both women and men, about their career paths and why they pursued new jobs when they did. The report led to a panel discussion during Reunion Weekend that welcomed the entire GW Law community to examine issues confronting women in legal careers, such as retention and re-emergence after leave, innovative solutions to problems, and alternative career paths for women with legal backgrounds. 

Ms. Owen was joined by fellow alumni leaders in the field to discuss progress and challenges. Panelists included Gail Holtzman, JD ’84, shareholder, labor & employment practice, Kass Shuler; Elizabeth Jacobs, JD ’84, SEC detail to U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of International Markets and Banking; and Jeff Kohn, JD ’84, managing partner, labor and employment practice, O’Melveny & Myers. The panel was moderated by GW Law Professor and D.C. Councilmember Mary M. Cheh.

The panel was introduced with information that the number of women in leadership roles has remained fairly stagnant over the decades—at a rate of only about 17 percent­­—since the Class of 1984 entered the legal market.

“So what is the recipe for success?” Professor Cheh asked.

“I’ve had wonderful mentors,” said Ms. Jacobs, who credited female attorney mentors, as well as many male attorney mentors who understood the value of promoting women in the law, for helping her to navigate her legal career. The importance of female mentors was echoed by the panel and audience members.

The “confidence gap” and the importance of not being scared to be “a correct and powerful” woman were brought up again and again. Ms. Holtzman told of her early years as an attorney, when higher-ups would tell her she would never make equity partner and that certain things were not worth her time, like attending an ABA conference or going to a child’s soccer game. But she met contacts and clients at these important outside-of-work events, and eventually others understood the importance. “They kept saying no, but I kept proving them wrong,” Ms. Holtzman said. 

Mr. Kohn said issues of women in the law and retention have been important to him and his firm, O’Melveny & Myers, for decades now, and that emphasis has allowed them to be a firm that values flexibility for attorneys and healthy work-life balances. He also stressed that while a change of attitude was needed across the industry and at many places, “it is your career, take charge of it, find a way to be valuable.” 

Panelists and audience members ended the discussion with calls for more work in this area. Professor Cheh emphasized that the law school is committed to doing everything it can, and she said she looks forward to more facilitated discussions and forward movement on the topic.

— by Claire Duggan