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MCBA President’s Message: Women attorneys are continuing the conversation on equality

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Jill M. Cicero

One of the most satisfying aspects of being president of the MCBA is the opportunity to recognize, encourage and promote attorneys whose voices are underrepresented in our legal community and the MCBA. Last month, I wrote about some of our efforts to improve diversity, with a focus on attorneys of color, in recognition of Black History Month. In this month’s column, I would like to focus on women attorneys in our legal community.

Much has been written about the fact that women have been graduating from law school in numbers almost equal to or greater than men for nearly 20 years, yet as of 2017 fewer than 30 percent of law firm partners are women, and only 19 percent of equity partners are women. Although the membership of the MCBA is generally reflective of the proportion of women in the legal profession, I am only the 10th woman to serve as president of the MCBA in the 122-year history of our bar association. However, I am delighted to report that our Nominating Committee has recommended Carolyn Nussbaum to become president-elect for the 2018-2019 bar year, and we have worked hard to be sure that women are well-represented in other leadership positions of the MCBA, such as section and committee chairs.

Women in MCBA leadership positions bring a perspective to these roles that is important and often different than that of their male counterparts. That perspective may be different in part because we understand what it feels like to experience gender bias, sexual harassment and discrimination, both personal and institutional, factors that our white male colleagues generally do not face and of which they are often unaware. It may also be different because we personally understand in disproportionate numbers what sacrifices are required at home and at work when striving for career success while often having primary responsibility for the care of young children and/or aging parents.

For many years, and not only since I became president of the MCBA, I have had the opportunity to informally mentor and encourage other women as they face the challenge of succeeding in the profession of law. Those experiences are what led me to propose early in this bar year that we present a seminar in which successful women attorneys of diverse experiences could share tips and insights about how they have navigated the challenges in their legal careers.

Thanks to the enthusiastic support of GRAWA and the work of Mary Beth Feindt and Kevin Ryan at the MCBA, this seminar became a reality on Feb. 14, entitled “Female Success in the Legal Profession.” Tiffany Lee, chief of the Appellate Division, U.S. Attorney’s Office, moderated a panel discussion that included Erika Duthiers, assistant vice president for compliance and ethics and deputy general counsel at RIT, Heidi Schult Gregory, a member of the firm of Harris Beach PLLC, Jill Paperno, first assistant public defender in the Monroe County Public Defender’s office, Arlene Santiago, senior vice president and general counsel for ESL Federal Credit Union, the Hon. Nancy Smith, a justice of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, and me. For nearly two hours we discussed the challenges we have faced, and we shared some of the tips that helped us to succeed.

By all accounts, attendees found the discussion to be helpful, affirming and even inspiring. It was gratifying for us panelists to feel the positive energy in the room and to see how many attendees remained for some time after the program ended, continuing the conversation with each other.

It seemed obvious to all of the panelists that we need to “continue the conversation.” Therefore, the MCBA hopes to co-sponsor with GRAWA a series of brown bag lunches featuring opportunities for small groups of attendees to have lunch with experienced women attorneys of diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise, and to discuss the challenges of being female in the practice of law and strategies for success. We hope to provide more information about our plans in the near future.

In the meantime, I hope to continue to use my position as president of the MCBA to serve as a role model for other women attorneys, to promote women attorneys for positions where their unique perspectives are important for all of us, and to encourage newer women attorneys to become involved in the MCBA where their voices can make a difference.

Jill M. Cicero is president of the Monroe County Bar Association and is the managing partner of The Cicero Law Firm LLP. She can be reached at jcicero@thecicerolawfirm.com.

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