Women lawyers at 20% in RI, one-third partners

While those in the law profession say it has become easier for women to enter the profession, still only about 20 percent of the state’s lawyers are women, and far fewer women are becoming partners than their male counterparts.

A Providence Business News survey of more than 65 law firms and nearly 700 Rhode Island lawyers found 20.03 percent of the lawyers were women, and that of the women lawyers, 36.29 percent had become partners in their law firms. Of the male lawyers, the survey found 63.03 percent were partners. The survey was compiled over the last few weeks.

The question of partnership directly relates to money. The differential in income between the average partner and average associate could be two to two and half times, said Richard Licht, managing partner in the firm of Tillinghast, Licht & Semonoff.

But no matter how difficult the numbers appear today, they actually represent considerable growth for women in the profession, compared to 30 years ago, when there were just 18 women who were members of the Rhode Island Bar Association, according to Helen McDonald, the association’s executive director.

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That number grew, McDonald said, to 47 in 1974, when the bar association had less than half of the 4,800 members it has today.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Florence Murray, who first became a member of the bar 57 years ago in Massachusetts, recalls that when she began practicing law in Rhode Island, there were just seven women lawyers in the state.

Today, McDonald suggests that among the 4,800 bar association members, possibly 1,200 are women, slightly higher than the survey suggested, but still a considerable minority in the profession.

Judge Murray said she isn’t surprised by the low figures, from her own observations, and because “women graduates of law schools have not really proliferated in the profession, except in the last 10-12 years.”

Asked about the obstacles she had to overcome to become a successful lawyer and judge, Murray said: “I just don’t recognize obstacles. I think they’re either ignorance or planned devious obstruction.”

But it’s clear that women with the determination of Judge Murray, helped pave the way for the others who began entering the profession in greater numbers in the late ’70s, McDonald said.

“The numbers of women at the bar have been so low for so long,” McDonald said, noting, however, that around 1979-1980 the number of women interested in the profession increased as women became more adept at balancing their careers and families.

“When I entered the practice in 1979 – and I’ve always practiced in Rhode Island – it was very different,” said Susan Leach DeBlasio, a partner in the law firm of Tillinghast, Licht & Semonoff and a former bar association president. “Now I think that gender just isn’t an issue. When I began practice there were very few attorneys in Rhode Island that were women. Traditionally they went into different particular areas of the law. It was unusual for a woman to be a corporate attorney. When I started I was a woman attorney. Today I’m an attorney.”

While agreeing generally with DeBlasio, whose areas of concentrate includes corporate, Deborah M. Tate of the law firm of Skolnik, McIntyre & Tate, and whose concentration is domestic relations, said that some clients will consider gender when seeking out a lawyer.

“There is something to communications styles between the sexes,” said Tate, who when she becomes president of the Rhode Island Bar Association on July 1, although she said she’s seen “it evolve over time where clients are less concerned or focused on the sex of the lawyer.”

DeBlasio said she’s also seen an increase in the number of women attending law school, so that at some institutions the figure exceeds 50 percent. Tate, who attended law school in the late ’70s, said she too has seen an increase in women in law schools, noting that when she was in law school about 25 percent of the students were women.

A survey of some of the top law schools found that generally the percentage of women in law school to be slightly more than 40 percent. For instance, at Yale University, 43 percent of law school students are women, at Harvard University it is 41 percent, and Marquette University Law School, 42 percent.

“Today, gender is neutral in hiring practices in law firms,” Licht said. “That wasn’t always the case. While women have been graduating laws schools in significant numbers since probably the early ’70s, only in the last decade has everyone recognized that women are as good attorneys as men. That wasn’t always the case.

“The point is that women attorneys are totally accepted in firms and by clients,” Licht said. “Clients really enjoy working with good lawyers, and gender is irrelevant.”

Said DeBlasio: “The biggest thing that I see – the biggest difference – today women who are attorneys can be attorneys, not just women attorneys. That happens to be the biggest change. It’s not a modifier anymore. It’s just accepted as ordinary. It certainly was not ordinary when I started.”

For Judge Murray, who was the first female judge in Rhode Island when she was appointed by Dennis J. Roberts (and another 17 years until the second was appointed), is confident that women in the law will continue to increase, and possibly dominate the profession.

“It’s basic,” she said. “If the supply is female, then percentage wise, the acceleration of their progress in the profession will somewhere equate the input I have always believed, if you’re 53 percent of the population you should be reflective in the hall of deliberation they’ll get there.”

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