Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2014

When Oregon Women Lawyers (OWLs) was established a quarter century ago, the key priority was to promote women within the legal profession. At that time, there were very few women in the profession, so the organization served mainly to help female attorneys find jobs and give them a voice within the Oregon State Bar, among other venues traditionally dominated by men.

Much has changed over the last 25 years. Women now make up nearly half of the students at Lewis & Clark Law School; just over 39 percent at Willamette University’s College of Law; and 43.6 percent at the University of Oregon School of Law. There are more female partners in Oregon law firms and more women judges in Oregon’s courts than ever before. And female attorneys have a greater number and variety of mentors than the generations who came before.

As OWLs marks its 25th anniversary, many of its members note there are many gains yet to be made. Some of these objectives include the decades-long pursuit of better work-life balance and equal pay for women in the legal profession. Others stem from more contemporary needs, such as educating female attorneys and judges about how to obtain and successfully fill positions of power and how to more effectively use technology to share knowledge and spread information.

Several OWLs past presidents recently spoke with the Bulletin to celebrate the organization’s anniversary and reflect on some of the trends and issues that have impacted it since its founding. Katherine O’Neil, founding OWLs president and a retired Portland attorney, recalls women having a difficult time finding jobs in the profession, particularly if they were mothers, when she and her colleagues established the organization.

“There is a saying that the law is a jealous mistress. Men devoted their entire lives to the practice of law and weren’t expected home for dinner or on the weekends. In those days, women attorneys had to follow the male model because there wasn’t any other model,” she says. “That has changed because of the influx of women into law school and the profession, and because of men who wanted to be active parents instead of absentee fathers.”

O’Neil says another detriment women attorneys faced was a lack of opportunities to serve on bar committees and write for bar publications, which was how attorneys traditionally established their credibility within the profession. She and other OWLs members approached the OSB Board of Governors to demand a better gender and ethnicity balance, she says.

“And, of course, the only reason they listened to me was because OWLs was a very large organization by that time,” O’Neil says.

Phylis Myles, assistant dean in the placement office at Willamette University’s College of Law, also was a founding OWLs member and served as president in 1995-96. Recalling the state’s “good ol’ boys network” of attorneys, Myles says female lawyers who were fortunate enough to be hired often quit soon after because they were the only woman attorney working in the firm. Women attorneys not only wanted a voice, she says, but helpful advice and support about how to run for and effectively serve on the bar’s board of governors.

Concetta Schwesinger, trial team leader for the Marion County Family Support Division and OWLs president from 2010-11, joined the organization soon after she started practicing in 1988 because it had been difficult for her to get her foot in the door.

“There weren’t a lot of female mentors out there or sensitivity to what the needs of women lawyers might be and how those might differ from the needs of men practicing law,” she says, noting she was fortunate to have Anna Brown, now a U.S. District Judge in Portland, as an invaluable mentor who encouraged her to get involved in OWLs.

Striving for Equality and Positions of Power

Since Myles and Schwesinger joined OWLs, they both have seen an increase in women serving in OSB Board of Governors and other bar leadership positions as well as partners in law firms. “There aren’t as many as we would like to see, though,” says Schwesinger, adding equal pay and opportunities for promotions remain an issue for many women in the profession.

“We are not taught to negotiate and sell ourselves that well,” Myles says. “The younger women have not seen the inequality of not having enough women in firms, and at first they were thinking that all the problems have gone away and we’re being treated equally. I think they are starting to realize that there still is subtle discrimination going on and women are not being paid equally.”

OWLs developed a continuing legal education program to increase members’ awareness about self-valuation and how to advocate for the pay they deserve, she says. It is one of several trainings OWLs has launched to help members achieve equality in pay, promotions and obtaining positions of power.

Kate Wilkinson,general counsel and director of human resources for C&K Market in Brookings, joined OWLs in 2000 and served as president from 2005-06. She calls herself a “second waver,” and credits O’Neil, the late Betty Roberts and other first-generation OWLs members with working hard to open the doors for the next generation. Wilkinson says she and her contemporaries remain focused on creating more opportunities for women in the legal profession.

“Over the last 14 years, we have worked to open the doors even wider and to focus on specifically helping women achieve their goals within their respective organizations. One area that I think OWLs has been tremendously effective in is in greatly increasing the number of women on the bench. OWLs has long had a focused approach and attention to this issue,” she says.

Wilkinson says the movement began with a small group that endorsed candidates and shared those endorsements with the governor. The group also developed a set of comprehensive, extensive written materials — a “Road to the Bench” — that laid out how members could prepare for a judicial position. OWLs works with individual candidates to review and edit written application materials and conduct mock interviews.

“We also seek to work with the governor’s office and senators’ offices for federal appointments to make sure that any selection committees and interview panels contain a good representation of our diverse profession,” she says.

“We still have work to do,” Wilkinson notes. “The numbers of women in general counsel roles, law firm partners and law school deans and professors are still shockingly low, and well below the percentages of women and minorities in the profession in general.”

Bridging the State’s Diverse Specialty Bars

The growing number of minority lawyers has impacted OWLs as well, from efforts to provide scholarships and mentorships for minority members to collaborating with minority and other specialty bar associations. Heather Weigler, an attorney with the Department of Justice Civil Enforcement Division in Portland and OWLs president from 2011-12, says women and minorities have made tremendous advances in the legal profession, but organizations like OWLs are needed now more than ever.

“Although we’ve made great strides, women and minorities lag far behind white men in the upper echelons of the profession, and the sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc. that used to be openly and blatantly expressed have become insidious. That makes them harder to name, and if you can’t name it, you can’t change it,” Weigler says. “We need organizations like OWLs to keep challenging the legal profession to be more inclusive and to find new ways of practicing law to allow women and minority lawyers to succeed on the same terms as their more privileged counterparts.”

Megan Livermore, an attorney with Gaydos, Churnside & Balthrop in Eugene and OWLs president from 2012-13, says OWLs’ increased synergy with minority bar associations and other specialty bar organizations help bring women and other minority legal communities together to work toward common goals.

“That’s a trend I like to see because OWLs’ mission is to promote women and minorities in the law, and those partnerships help give it momentum,” Livermore says, adding OWLs history, knowledge and network of support and resources can help bolster smaller groups.

Debra Pilcher Velure, an attorney with Elkins, Zipse & Mitchell in Eugene and OWLs president from 2000-01, says these types of collaborative partnerships have made OWLs a clearinghouse organization for minority bar organizations across the state.

“I think there was a struggle for an organization like Lane County Women Lawyers that wanted to keep its identity and not let OWLs take over,” she says, noting OWLs’ outreach efforts have improved its partnerships with other organizations. “By taking time to do that outreach and build confidence in the geographic diversity of our state, I think OWLs has really taken that step to make sure every woman lawyer in Oregon feels connected.”

Pilcher Velure says OWLs also provides resources for Lane County Women Lawyers and other organizations to fund events, develop website registration and obtain speakers for events, among other support.

“That trend of trust building within the existing infrastructure has grown and, as a result, all of the chapters of women lawyers around the state are stronger,” she says.

Pursuit of Work-Life Balance Continues

Women lawyers have long struggled with how to raise children and balance their personal interests with developing and maintaining a successful career. That challenge continues today, though the growing number of stay-at-home dads makes it a little easier, says Helle Rode, Portland attorney and OWLs president from 1994-95.

“There are more men staying home with their kids and I see that as a positive thing. My husband stayed home with our kids for many years, and now I see it more and more. It’s not uncommon now,” Rode says. “I think there are more women with children who are successful in the law profession. It’s still extremely difficult to balance working as a lawyer and having children, and that’s true for men as well.”

Julie Caron,who works with the Office of Equity and Compliance, Global Diversity and Inclusion, at Portland State University, joined OWLs early in her career and served as president from 1996-97. She then took some time off to raise her family and do some consulting work.

“A lot of what OWLs has done for me is provide great personal development early on in my career, and then being a wonderful networking tool as I came back into the workplace,” she says.

Caron says that as OWLs has grown from a small grassroots group to an organization representing more than 1,300 members, it has continuously provided a network of support and resources on a range of issues.

“There are a lot of women who go to law school and work within the profession, but for reasons known and unknown they don’t advance to partner as often as men do. So OWLs helps provide a network for conversations about that as well as the balance between work and family and other issues,” she says.

As various trends and issues have impacted the organization and its members, OWLs has developed resources to address them, Caron adds. In addition to CLEs and training programs, these include scholarships for women and minorities who are studying for the bar and entering the profession, a mentorship program, and awards that recognize employers who strive to recognize the needs of women and minority legal professionals.

“OWLs still remains a kind of personal, collaborative network, but it has evolved over the years to become more of a force in the Portland legal community,” she says. “It helps frame policies and advocates for the advancement of women and minorities in the profession.”

Technology Enhances Communication, Collaboration 

Portland attorney Lori Deveny, OWLs president from 2001-02, says electronic communication has had one of the greatest impacts on OWLs and its members. While attitudes toward electronic newsletters, list serves and other tools may vary depending on generational differences, there is no doubt OWLs has been able to expand its reach because of them, she says.

Schwesinger, who helped develop OWLs’ list serve when she was president, said the discussion involved a range of topics that impact members, including how to help busy professionals with daily basics like how to find a good plumber.

OWLs’ electronic communications also help connect members who participate in groups like a playgroup of women who are taking time off to raise children and want to interact with other women attorneys doing the same thing, and attorneys who are the first in their families to go to college and pursue a legal career, Myles says.

“When OWLs was founded it wanted to support members with family and child-care issues that were unique to women back then,” she says. “If the OWLs founders could have foreseen what the Internet and the list serve could do, that’s exactly what they would have wanted.


Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin. Reach her at precisionpdx@comcast.net.

© 2014 Melody Finnemore

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