The Wisconsin Law Journal: Associations reach out to women litigators

by Jane Pribek
August 13, 2008
According to a 2007 study from the National Association of Women Lawyers, women constitute just 16 percent of equity partners in US law firms. Women are also sorely underrepresented among the ranks of litigators, says Wausau attorney Christine Bremer Muggli, despite the fact that women are now graduating in numbers equal to men from the nation’s law schools.
Remedying that situation is among the goals of veteran civil litigator Bremer Muggli, of Bremer & Trollop S.C., during her term as president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice (WAJ), the largest voluntary statewide bar association in Wisconsin, consisting largely of plaintiffs’ lawyers. She has appointed at least two women to every standing WAJ committee, in addition to ensuring that more women are speakers at conferences. 
But perhaps the most aggressive strategy has been the establishment of its Women’s Caucus, she says, “To let women find a place within the bar where they can come together, network and support each other with their professional relationships.”
Next month, the caucus will have its inaugural meeting and retreat, at the Glacier Canyon Lodge Conference Center in the Wisconsin Dells. The Sept. 11-12 event will feature nationally known speakers and a one-credit CLE presentation, but also, the group discuss future directions for the women’s caucus. Among the slated topics, says Jill A. Rakauski, of Penn Rakauski in Racine, and co-chair of the caucus, is the creation of a mentoring program and an e-mail group, as well as other fellowship/networking opportunities.
The caucus will invite women law students, will pay their way and have the speakers give a workshop geared toward them. “We want them to think about careers in litigation that will span 50 years, and not 10,” says Bremer Muggli.
The idea for the Women’s Caucus came from the American Association for Justice, which has had its own Women’s Caucus for several years, which has been duplicated in other states.
Rakauski hypothesizes that women are underrepresented among litigators because they are practicing full-time, and still taking on the bulk of the child-rearing and household duties. Then there are the added burdens that most litigators face: long hours, travel and accommodating a court’s calendar, rather than their own.
“Litigation requires a large time commitment. And, when you have to be away for two weeks for a trial, that’s pretty hard if you have children,” she says, adding, “There may be some pre-existing biases [against women] still, which are fading away. But once in a while, I’m still mistaken for the court reporter when I come to a deposition.”
Men are welcome to join, and participate in, the caucus.
Melding Women’s Interests with Others
Catherine M. Rottier, secretary/treasurer for the Civil Trial Counsel of Wisconsin, a statewide defense lawyers’ bar association, says CTCW does not have a similar subgroup.
However, the group is in the process of forming a young lawyers division, which she believes will cater to the interests of many of the organization’s women members, a good number of whom are new or relatively new lawyers.
Rottier, of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field LLP in Madison, says at her firm and in her city, there’s no shortage of women litigators. But clearly, that’s not the case everywhere, and she and other CTCW leaders would certainly consider the formation of an entity similar to WAJ’s Women’s Caucus, if the support for it within CTCW arose.
Likewise, Beth Ermatinger Hanan, chair-elect of the Litigation Section of the State Bar of Wisconsin, says the section, which consists of both plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers, has not made advancing women litigators’ interests a central goal, probably in part because the bar has had other entities throughout the years that have pursued similar goals.
The bar had a Committee on Women in the Profession, and more recently, a Gender Equity Committee. The Gender Equity Committee, along with the Flexible Work Options Committee, of which Hanan was a member, created a handbook entitled, “Balancing Work and Personal Life: Developing Flexible Work Options for Lawyers,” in 2004.
The Gender Equity Committee merged with the bar’s Diversity Outreach Committee in 2005.
The Diversity Outreach Committee continues to pursue a number of initiatives that will advance the interests of women, along with other groups such as attorneys of color, says N. Lynnette McNeely, of the Law Offices of Thomas J. Awen in Milwaukee.
The committee is forming a collaboration of representatives of the state’s biggest firms, that will commit to criteria in hiring designed to promote diversity, and will work to address the causes of attrition of diverse attorneys, including women. Another project is the creation of marketing materials to attract more diverse attorneys to either come to Wisconsin, post-law school, or stay here if they attended a Wisconsin law school.
Women in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay have the option of membership in women’s bar associations, adds Hanan. Respectively, they are the Association for Women Lawyers, the Legal Association for Women and the Association for Women Lawyers of Brown County. These associations are complemented by women’s professional groups such as TEMPO and Professional Dimensions.
In addition, Hanan, of Gass Weber Mullins in Milwaukee, says many of the state’s big and medium-sized firms are taking steps to promote women’s success as litigators, such as offering part-time schedules and forming affinity groups. Hanan previously practiced with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C., the fourth largest law firm in the state. As an associate in the Litigation Department, she proposed an 80 percent schedule in 2001. The arrangement worked well and became a prototype for others, both men and women, who had compelling reasons to cut back.
A Permanent Fixture
Bremer Muggli and Rakauski say there will probably always be a women’s caucus, even when the numbers of male to female litigators even out.
“When you look at how women approach problems, we tend to solve them differently than men do. It’s not better or worse; it’s just different. So, we’ll always need a place to get together and share those strategies, with each other and with men.”
Rakauski echoes those sentiments. In 10 years, she suspects members of the Women’s Caucus won’t be talking about countering prejudice or feelings of isolation; but rather, they’ll mostly be networking and using it as a sounding board for concerns that are unique to women. She observes, “Sometimes women are just more comfortable talking to other women.”
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