Jillian Beck 2017-04-27 05:41:23
UT Center for Women in Law conference promotes women as lead counsel. The longtime lawyer opened her remarks with a question, How many of the women in the audience had ever served as lead trial counsel? Several hands raised in the crowd. “There is certainly room to grow,” said the speaker, Stephanie A. Scharf, at the opening panel of Promoting Women as Lead Counsel: From the Courtroom to the Boardroom, a conference held by the University of Texas School of Law Center for Women in Law on February 23 in Houston. The symposium used the 2015 American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession and American Bar Foundation study, “First Chairs at Trial: More Women Need Seats at the Table,” which Scharf co-authored with fellow attorney Roberta D. Liebenberg, as a springboard for an in-depth discussion about advancing women in lead litigation roles. Houston’s historic Harris County 1910 Courthouse served as the backdrop for the daylong event that brought together judges, plaintiff’s and defense attorneys, and both new and veteran trial counsel. “Today for the first time in American history, women make up a majority of the country’s law students,” Hon. Kem Frost, chief justice of the 14th Court of Appeals, said to those in attendance. “As women in law, we celebrate these achievements, but we also look ahead because we are still on a journey.” Men are much more likely to serve as lead trial counsel than women in all but a few specialty areas and three times more likely to be lead trial counsel in civil cases, according to the ABA study, which analyzed a random sample of all cases filed in 2013 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. During her panel, Scharf discussed the report, which laid out specific steps law schools, law firms, judges, and attorneys can take to help bridge the gap, including targeted training, mentoring, and retention efforts. “If we are excising almost 50 percent of people available to be trial lawyers, we are losing a tremendous amount of talent,” Scharf said. Similar to Scharf’s findings, Dana Alvaré, a research fellow at Temple University Beasley School of Law, told attendees about her examination of multi-district litigation, which has so far shown men occupy most leadership roles in that field’s cases. In-house counsel discussed how their departments are working to increase the diversity in background of the outside attorneys and firms they hire. Elizabeth Matthews, vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary for Total Petrochemicals and Refining USA Inc., said her department pushes back if an outside firm brings an all-male team of attorneys. “We need to constantly re-evaluate the lawyers we have working for us,” Matthews said. “It can lead to a lack of opportunities for others if you continue to hire the same people.” All of the panelists encouraged young women attorneys to empower themselves and take control of their careers by seeking out opportunities, while also acknowledging the necessity of experienced attorneys mentoring and training younger associates. Cisselon Nichols Hurd, senior litigation counsel to Shell Oil, emphasized the need for women attorneys to be unafraid of sharing their successes. “We’ve got to get your stories out there,” Hurd said. Veteran trial attorneys shared insight into how they became successful lead counsel, with all encouraging confidence and risk-taking. Claudia Wilson Frost, of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said her tendency to never shy away from a challenging case has served her well in her career and that having mentors throughout has been invaluable. They also touted the benefits of diverse trial teams. “Having the ability to be able to rely on different perspectives helps build connections with the client,” said Shauna Johnson Clark of Norton Rose Fulbright. “The greater the diversity, the better the outcome—that’s been true in my experience.” The way jurors view women attorneys has changed dramatically over time, said Sherie Potts Beckman, of Mithoff Law, during the panel “Benefits of Female Trial Counsel: Views from the Box,” which looked at how and if women trial lawyers affect jurors’ perceptions. “It’s personality driven more than anything else—how you conduct yourself with your personality and your strengths,” Beckman said. Hon. Alfred H. Bennett, a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Texas, said he makes a point to get feedback from jurors after trials and has never heard comments about an attorney’s gender, but rather how competently a practitioner performed. “It was about their experience and their ability to move the jurors and present evidence,” Bennett said. That’s why he said he believes it is important for young lawyers—both men and women—to get the required experience, mentoring, and training in the courtroom to become effective advocates. To encourage opportunity for new lawyers, Bennett said he employs a rule in his courtroom where he is more likely to grant a hearing if the attorney arguing the motion has been practicing for seven years or fewer. Other judges use this practice as well, such as Hon. Gregg Costa of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, who inspired Bennett, and Hon. Barbara M.G. Lynn, chief U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Texas, from whom Costa pulled the idea. Costa, along with other judges, discussed at an afternoon panel strategies for how judges can help advance women and young attorneys as lead counsel. Several suggested encouraging pro bono and participating in continuing legal education, and others promoted hiring diverse law clerks and providing feedback to trial counsel. Hon. Keith Ellison, a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Texas, closed the conference with a speech, recounting discrimination women have faced and continue to face and advocating for them to have increased roles and opportunities in the legal profession and beyond. “The hour’s late and the agenda is long, but the time is right and the cause is manifestly just,” Ellison said to applause.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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