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Care to improve the conversation?

Senior Editor Regular News

Care to improve the conversation?

Bar responds to YLD survey detailing gender bias in the legal profession

Senior Editor

Kim Cook, Sedgwick’s Miami office managing partner, was proud to be sworn in as the first female president of the Miami Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

At the recent swearing-in ceremony, some man sitting in the back of the room belted out this joke: “I thought you were a waitress!”

“Funny, right?” said Florida Bar President Ramón Abadin and Cook’s husband. “Not really. I’m concerned that this is what my wife faces, and my daughter may face.”

Ramon Abadin More than two decades ago, when Cook was seven and a half months pregnant with their second son, she tried a case to trial and got a defense verdict, Abadin said, describing how she took maternity leave, had the baby, and came back to work, only to be asked by her partner: “How did you enjoy your vacation?”

“That was a long time ago, but here we are again. How come things haven’t changed? It is personal to me,” Abadin told the Board of Governors on March 11, as he showed them a presentation that he is giving to Florida Association for Women Lawyers affiliates around the state called, “Care to Improve the Conversation?”

And really improving the conversation, Abadin said, will be packing the room with men, instead of preaching to the choir. It’s The Florida Bar’s response to the sobering statistics revealed in a Young Lawyers Division survey of young women lawyers: 43 percent of respondents said they had experienced gender bias during their careers; 37 percent said they had experienced a lack of recognition of work-life balance at their law firms; 21 percent believe they are not paid the same as their male counterparts.

“These numbers are dramatic,” Abadin said. “One percent is unacceptable, but 43 percent is borderline unconscionable, particularly in 2016.”

Beyond numbers, the survey respondents reported being mistaken for court reporters and being referred to as “blondie” and “little lady.” The March 1 Florida Bar News story about the survey was posted online and through social networking has been viewed more than 60,000 times, said YLD President Gordon Glover.

“This is all near and dear to FAWL’s heart,” said Kristin Ann Norse, president of Florida Association for Women Lawyers. “The survey results probably were not as shocking for some of our members as they were for other lawyers. Although to see it continuing to happen for younger lawyers is distressing.”

She was at the Central Florida chapter of FAWL when Abadin gave his first presentation, and in a roomful of about 200 women, there were less than 10 men.

“So the discussion was: How can we get everybody to the table?” Norse said.

Abadin urged Board of Governors members to invite men to the presentations held in their circuits, and to consider giving the presentation themselves to voluntary bar associations. He said President-elect Bill Schifino will continue the conversation during his term.

“I would like to have a hard conversation with the men in the room and say, “OK, gentlemen. We’re the 82 percent. Why?” Abadin said, referring to a 2015 National Association of Women Lawyers statistic that showed while 18 percent of equity partnerships are held by women, a whopping 82 percent of those positions is still held by men.

“Men are clearly still in control of equity partnerships in firms. Power is money, and money is power. So the women don’t have anywhere near the equal power, equal representation in corporate firms that they do coming out of law school. So the question is: Why? We have to start thinking about what we are going to do about it. What can we do about it?” Abadin asked.

Renée Thompson, a Board of Governors member who chairs the Communications Committee, said, “The media picked up immediately on our bias story. It was on our social media page and it started this landslide of information, which grew on top of itself.

“It started to get bigger and bigger and bigger…. This particular topic has gotten media press across the nation. We have been in the National Law Review, you name it,” Thompson said.

“Folks want to talk to us about this issue. The Florida Bar is leading not only what’s happening in our profession, but what we can do about it to make it real for folks who are dealing with this in other professions as well. It’s a cultural issue. It doesn’t just happen to lawyers. So they are picking up on a bigger message.”

The national media, Thompson said, is asking: “What is The Florida Bar doing? Because other bar associations are looking to us to help fix this issue.”

Abadin said: “It’s shocking to me as a 57-year-old person, because most of us in this room grew up in the era of civil rights; the Civil Rights Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, LGBT issues.

“We have been discussing individual rights and civil rights our entire lives. So to then see these statistics, after we supposedly have been working so hard to accommodate the Constitution of ‘We the People,’ is just frustrating. So we really need to address this.”

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