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GRAWA President’s Message: My wish list

Jill Paperno

Jill Paperno

This is my last column as president of GRAWA. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what we as GRAWA do, and what we still have left to do.

During some recent GRAWA events, I’ve participated in discussions about how things were “back in the day”, how some things have changed, and how others have not. These days, sexist treatment at the hands of opposing counsel, bosses, colleagues or judges is far less common than when I first started; but occasionally, it is still something we face.

When I first started in the Public Defender’s office, there were very few women practicing in criminal court as defense attorneys (or prosecutors).  I remember one Town Court judge who would hug me as he took the bench.

He did not hug the male prosecutor.  I’m sure he never meant any harm. Nobody taught me, an attorney just a couple of years out of law school, how to deal with that bizarre circumstance. I know the judge was being sweet in his own way, but it undermined me as a professional.

My husband is a retired firefighter. After my son was born, I used to make sure that if I was scheduled to be on a multi-day trial and my husband was working nights, the judge before whom I was appearing would agree to end the trial at 5:00 on those days when Les was working at night. We had day care which closed at 6:00, but no relatives in the area.

One judge, no longer sitting, had agreed in advance to let the jury go at 5:00 on the dates I had given him so I could pick up my son from day care when my husband was at the firehouse. I remember the day he reneged, insisting we were going until 7:00 in the middle of a murder trial. It was late in the day and I couldn’t reach friends. My husband couldn’t leave the firehouse.

Did I risk contempt and leave? I was in tears in the Hall of Justice, desperate but unable to find a solution. I knew I was going to have to walk out, but somehow, the judge changed his mind.  I think it was the deputy who saw me in the hall, frantically making phone calls, who may have helped.

There was the judge who asked each woman what perfume she was wearing. A judge who made comments that were both embarrassing and sexual. There was the disproportionate anger of a judge or two when I persisted in preserving the record, rather than the collegial banter men experienced. And occasionally, the colleague who doubted my perceptions about what I was experiencing.

Even in recent times, a few of my female colleagues have been subjected to angry and inappropriate language from a local court judge that the male colleagues have not seemed to face.  Again, the vast majority of judges do not engage in this conduct.

GRAWA is a unique organization which combines opportunities for social experiences, networking, mentoring, education, and support as members navigate a legal field that has become more open to women, but still harbors some challenges. So here is my GRAWA wish list for the future:

I wish that GRAWA would, informally or formally develop a committee or group of members who could assist other members facing disparate treatment by judges, bosses, colleagues or others. Perhaps they would discuss the problem, generate possible solutions, or even assist in pursuing changes. I believe even just the support of an experienced, knowledgeable group of colleagues would help someone facing those challenges.

Another wish – In my early days as an attorney there were times, through no intentional conduct of anyone, but simply my own lack of confidence, during which I felt that I would be incapable of handling cases as well as my co-workers, and fearful when the very experienced staff moved on to other jobs. (As I later learned, and has been described in Lean In, this lack of confidence is not that uncommon among women professionals.)  I wish that we would begin to think about how we offer assistance to less experienced colleagues.

I realize I am guilty of getting this wrong at times.  Instead of just giving the advice about how to do something, as we are mentoring and assisting, let’s make sure we assure the younger, less experienced attorneys, that they are fully capable of completing a task, and recognizing their good work when they do. Let’s make part of our focus building confidence among younger attorneys.

I wish that our members would recognize that when you let someone help you with a personal or professional problem, you are giving that person an opportunity and a gift. And I wish that our members would seek out the help they need.

I wish that we would develop a team of attorneys who will be available to moot court, or observe and critique, parts of trials or presentations that our members may be involved in. I wish that once strategic planning is completed, we conclude that there is an interest in a litigation committee.

I have been thrilled to be the GRAWA president this year, and I have so appreciated all of the hard work and support of the members. I wish that you all knew just how much you have made this year such a great year for me and for GRAWA.

And for the incoming board and president, Pam Reynolds, I wish you the best of luck and most wonderful of experiences in the coming year.

Jill Paperno is president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys.