Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2007
Women in the Law
The OSB Classes of 1993 and 2003
By Janine Robben

Janine Robben: Imagine you’re a male member of the bar and you get a letter that says, "We are inviting men who are members of the OSB classes of ‘blank’ to join in a conversation about their experiences, goals, obstacles and lessons learned." What’s your reaction?

Shari Gregory ’93: Laughter. Because, in my mind, a lot of the guys would feel like it’s a given — you know, "How I would be at this stage in my career should be a given. Everyone should know how well I’m doing or…"

Dady Blake ’93: It seems a little touchy-feely. I mean, I’m here for business, to make money. Aren’t we all? This is my career.

Janine Robben: What was your reaction, as a woman, to getting a letter that was inviting just women?

Sharnel Mesirow ’03: I think it’s an important letter, mostly because the introduction of women to the career has been fairly new. Just to see how women have advanced in it is, to me, a tremendous opportunity, especially being the newer generation, where things are much more equal, much more available.

How Much More Equal Are Things?

Getting the Job
Sharnel Mesirow: I clerked for a large firm in law school. During my summer there, I was frequently commended by my supervisor and mentors for my work. Prior to my clerkship, I developed a relationship with a law student who would start work at the firm that fall. We never worked together. In my final "review" of the summer, I was shown the positive reviews on all of the projects that I’d worked on. I couldn’t help but get the impression that "This is going to end in a long-term career with this firm." Then the conversation strangely turned to my relationship. The interviewer said, "Well, tell us about so-and-so. How’s your relationship going?" And I thought, "I don’t have any idea why that’s your business at all." I was taken back and I said, "It’s fine. Why?" And they basically alluded to the fact that they were "concerned" and asked, "Do you think you’re going to get married?" At that point, I was in no position to make such a prediction, and said so. Mysteriously, despite my performance, my grades in law school and all those other kind of merit-based contingencies, they thought that that was a critical issue.

Doing the Job

Shari Gregory: What if you were already working at [a nameless Oregon] firm in the early ’90s, and they say, "Wouldn’t you rather be home having babies?"

Katie Lane ’03: As opposed to having what?

Sharnel Mesirow: Having dogs or —

Dady Blake: — working and getting all the good jobs?

Janine Robben: What did you say?

Shari Gregory: I was taken aback. When you’re new and a new member of the bar, the first thing on your mind is, "I have to make it here." I was 30 years old when I graduated from law school, so I wasn’t a kid, but that (question) really put me in that one down position at that moment. Now I work at the Attorney Assistance Program and I counsel people all the time. And these dilemmas still come up for women.

Kathleen Rinks ’93: I have been told (in past employment situations) that clients were matched with attorneys based on the fact that I’m a woman and they assume certain things about nurturing and hand-holding and comforting that some of the male attorneys can’t provide.

Janine Robben: Who made those assignments?

Kathleen Rinks: The managing partner.

Janine Robben: Male or female?

Kathleen Rinks: Male.

Janine Robben: Were there other women attorneys
in your office?

Kathleen Rinks: There was only one at that point. They had to keep one on staff for exactly that reason. They would have preferred to have all men.

Catriona McCracken ’93: Were you expected to provide legal services in addition to the hand-holding?

Kathleen Rinks: Oh, yeah. That’s what I wanted to be doing. That was my job.

Catriona McCracken: I think it’s a slight to a lot of guys because there are a lot of guys that can do that kind of (hand holding) stuff, too, but maybe they’re scared to ever show it. I know some great male attorneys who would be very good at that, but I don’t know if they’d ever get the chance.

Janine Robben: Did you ever get feedback from the clients: "I’m so glad I got a woman attorney because I’m feeling really upset, needy about this experience, and I think you’re better suited to hold my hand than a man?"

Kathleen Rinks: I hear that all the time, from both men
and women.

Ashlee Munson ’03: I’ve actually had clients call and expressly say, "We are looking for a female attorney."

Catriona McCracken: Do you do family law?

Ashlee Munson: I do business.

Janine Robben: Do they say why?

Ashlee Munson: One business said they felt that (women attorneys) were more communicative. But this particular company was the interesting one. They said that they felt a female attorney would be more apt to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish.

Catriona McCracken: Interesting. Was this a women-owned business?

Ashlee Munson: No, it was a male-owned business.

Sonya Fischer ’03: What was the goal, to seek a solution for the problem or to litigate or what?

Ashlee Munson: That was interesting. They were involved in litigation, and once I looked at everything that was going on, it was very clear that one of the things that had been happening was that the male attorneys had just not talked.

Fitting In

Janine Robben: Shari, you said that when you worked in criminal defense, the environment was very macho and you worked really hard at looking the part. What did you mean by that?

Shari Gregory: I was always walking around with the overstuffed briefcase. By the end of my four years and three months in criminal defense, I could take all seven flights at the courthouse. I was very fit. I was very conscious of my physical self, more than I tend to be now. I mean, of course, we all are — we’re women — but definitely it was your physical self that mattered.

Janine Robben: Because you were working in a macho environment?

Shari Gregory: I think it just made me feel more comfortable and equal to the guys. I mean, I was one of the guys, you know. And that really works in that kind of realm, where you can sit down with people after work and shoot the [breeze] and you can cuss like the rest of them, etcetera, and just hang out. And I mean, it was fun. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun. But it’s definitely using that one side of myself more than the rest of myself.

Katie Lane: I was talking to (my boss, Multnomah County Counsel) Agnes (Sowle) one day about why she always wore skirts when she had a court appearance. I said, "Pants are just so much more comfortable." And she said, "I always have (worn skirts), and part of the reason is, I know I’m a good attorney, I know I’m going to win, and when I win, I want them to know a woman beat them."

I remembered that, and I immediately went out and bought a skirt suit, too. And I hate skirts.

Jennifer Roumell ’93: When I graduated, I became the token woman in a very male-dominated (Oregon) firm. They had a staff room and attorney lounge. I was not allowed to go into the staff room, even though it was all female, and had to go eat lunch in the attorney lounge. I would walk in, and the conversation would change because they knew a girl — I felt like a girl because they were much older — but a female was in the room. So I changed the whole tenor of their lunch, but they knew they had to have me in there.

I had clerked in an all-female firm and had no idea how unusual that was. I mean, there was not a male in sight in that place, except for the air conditioner guy who would walk in and freak out and leave. All of a sudden I land this formal, big-time, full-time job, and what in the world? I had no idea how to make that happen, because I was young.

Janine Robben: Did you try to conform to what they were talking about?

Jennifer Roumell: Sure. I remember the first raunchy joke I told. I wouldn’t have told that in a group of professional women, you know. If we were off doing something, maybe. But I felt the need to do it. And they were just looking at me, too, like, "Oh, what is happening?" And I was like, "I don’t know either. I just want to get out of here."

Janine Robben: Were they (the males in the firm) making any effort to move to a stereotypical idea of what they thought you might be interested in talking about?

Jennifer Roumell: No. At least then, the mindset was: "We have to treat her like anybody else." So those who would go out and have their martini lunch with their clients they knew forever were like, "You come out and have a martini lunch." Even a male who wouldn’t want to would feel the need to do it, because you’re one of us. You know what I mean? It’s that kind of atmosphere. "We’re not excluding you because you’re a female. You’re one of us. This is what we do."

Janine Robben: Do you think men have the same pressure on them to talk a certain way or dress a certain way to fit their offices’ ideas of male attorneys?

Catriona McCracken: Oh, definitely.

Kathleen Rinks: And for some of them, it’s less than a comfortable fit, too.

Catriona McCracken: Speaking for myself, I’ve always just assumed that we all kind of do that. I mean, you get up in the morning, and if you’re going to work, you put on your lawyer face and your lawyer clothes. If you’re going to court, then it’s a whole set of clothes again, depending on which judge you’re appearing before, because, heck, you can’t lose the client’s case because today you feel like wearing pants and it’s going to piss the judge off.

Choosing A Specialty

Janine Robben: A lot of you are in fields that might be considered more women’s fields than men’s, such as family law versus patent law. Why do you think that is?

Sonya Fischer: I fought against going into family law. I’m a former social worker, political activist, lobbyist, legislative assistant, always looking out for the vulnerable populations and the social good. And I thought, "I’m going to do personal injury work where I’m helping victims." I spent a lot of time in the early part of my career apprenticing myself to learn that. And I realized that I was doing a lot of glorified paperwork and dealing with adjusters who weren’t quite human beings, and it wasn’t satisfying. At the time I was doing a special education practice, disability activism and helping people in the crisis moments in their lives, and I just fell over into family law.

But I found that instead of being a social worker — where you don’t really have any ability to help people, other than the resources that are there and what you can connect them to — as an attorney, you can go to court and ask the judge. There’s a level of authority and ability to really help people that I found really rewarding. I still think, "Oh, I’ll bring back personal injury." I do a little bit of personal injury. But I just find the stories and the evolution of self, of people that come to you in your office in a moment that’s broken and they grow and become stronger, that whole evolution is just fascinating, and it’s really quite an honor and a privilege to be a part of it in such a personal way.

Dady Blake: I chose (elder law) because it was in a helping profession. I actually made the decision very spontaneously after seeing a video of an elder law CLE while I was waiting to see if I had passed the bar exam. I loved the way the attorneys treated each other and the way they talked about their clients. It was not adversarial: it was very solution-based, very caring, and just immediately I wanted to be one of them. And I came from a business background. So it wasn’t because it was a female-dominated profession. I was attracted to the caring, the solution-based law.

Sonya Fischer: I think there’s a difference in the areas of the bar where you practice and who your opposing counsel is. I find in family law, for the most part, it’s pretty solution-oriented, and it’s pleasant. Whereas in other areas of law, I hear from colleagues that they are tired of fighting all day. It just gets exhausting. And I’m like, "Wow, I’m just so glad that’s not my life."

Getting Paid For What You Do

Janine Robben: Shari, I noticed that when Dady said that maybe acts of discrimination are less overt nowadays, you laughed. Is that based on the stories you hear from people who come to you (at the Attorney Assistance Program)?

Shari Gregory: I would say it’s less overt. But when I’m talking to women, specifically, about why they’re uncomfortable at their job or something’s wrong, oftentimes there are subtle things that are going on — like what Jennifer was saying, but on a subtle scale. Women are still "the other" at the firm. Or the more overt things now are salary differences: even though everyone is sitting at the table together and it’s seemingly equal, that men are coming in at higher levels when they are hired.

Jennifer Roumell: Yes. One of my friends was very hot on that issue. She went through almost our entire law school class, did an informal survey and sent it out. And that was really eye-opening to me, because it was there in black and white.

Janine Robben: When you found out that you were getting paid less than (a male) with less experience, what did you do?

Jennifer Roumell: I talked to the managing partners. And what was interesting was, it was never really made up. I started receiving bigger bonuses. But when you calculate that out, your bonus is based on what you make. It never quite covered the gap, because they (the men) got a bonus, too.

Shari Gregory: I think women don’t always know how to advocate for themselves, because we don’t come with as much entitlement. Even though we went to law school, studied for the bar and are professionals, too. When I do counsel people on this issue, that’s part of it, teaching people to advocate for themselves.

Ashlee Munson: I think that’s a very different reaction in terms of how men and women are wired, and that speaks directly to salary and your entitlement and what you feel you need to do just because you’re human and to be a good steward in the community.

Dady Blake: It also suggests that firms are taking advantage of that.

Ashlee Munson: Oh, I agree.

Dady Blake: But in a utopia, we would not only educate the women, we would educate the firms and the HR resources that to have a good working environment, they’re going to pay the resources — women and men — the same equivalent, and they’re not going to have to have the women all have to go to assertiveness training classes.

Katie Lane (left): This is based on anecdotes from some of my female friends. I notice that we all tend to take our careers rather personally. With some of my male friends, their jobs are different. They’re separate, and it’s business, and when it comes down to things like salary, it’s bargaining over business. They can all leave the table, shake hands, be friends, and not have it be the end of the world, whereas sometimes I need to have a glass of wine and vent. I just think I’ve noticed recently that I do take my job very, very personally. And I wonder if that plays into the inequity that we were talking about.

Janine Robben: Katie and Catriona, you work for government or have worked for government, and you talk to other government lawyers, too. Do you think salary inequity issues are less in government employment where there’s more of a formal salary step structure?

Catriona McCracken: In my experience, I think (the salary compensation piece) is more even. The promotion of women to higher levels, to management positions, I don’t know that that’s made the full shift yet.

Katie Lane: With government, it is at times both transparent and opaque. It can be very difficult to understand how those steps work and how advancement works. I haven’t experienced a salary inequity, and I think our office tries very hard to make sure that everybody is treated fairly. But I think as far as advancement, it can sometimes get a little bit murky.

The Mommy Track

Janine Robben: Quite a few of you are raising fairly young kids. How is that working?

Sonya Fischer: I recall when I was interning at the district attorney’s office, and it was my dream internship. I loved going to court: all the adrenaline, flying by the seat of my pants. But right before my internship was to end, I had a family emergency with my six-year-old son. I had just left a marriage and moved into an apartment in Lake Oswego. And I was doing the typical thing in the district attorney’s office, where anybody could have stepped in to do it. But there was no coverage and no support for someone to step in. I can remember saying to the judge, "Excuse me, Your Honor, but may I go into your chambers and use your phone? I have to call someone to make alternate arrangements." And I chose not to apply for a place where I wanted to work more than anyplace else in the world because I couldn’t risk compromising my ability to parent as a newly single mom of my six-year-old.

Now I have my own solo law practice in Lake Oswego. I have an incredible support network and an incredible mentor, and I don’t think of myself as on my own. The culture of law, and the way that it is working at firms — sacrificing your weekends and working evenings — how could I possibly parent this child who plays lacrosse, soccer, basketball, who has music lessons? I just couldn’t. I don’t know how people do it. I just think it would
be impossible.

Janine Robben: Some of the rest of you may still be looking at having children. Do you have any thoughts about how you’re going to combine that with being lawyers?

Sharnel Mesirow: I think it’s the scariest question out there.

Jennifer Roumell: I have a five-year-old, a three-year-old and a 20-month-old, so I work part-time. One thing I didn’t realize, and girlfriends of mine who were smarter than me realized when they had kids, it stalls your career. It comes to a screeching halt very quickly. Having kids and saying you’re going to work full-time but not doing it full-time has put other girlfriends in better career paths. That’s just an eye-opener for me.

Janine Robben: They stayed full-time on paper?

Jennifer Roumell: They stayed full-time on paper, but they’re not doing the 80-hour weeks.

Catriona McCracken: It depends on the support network. You need to build a network and have it [in place] before you have the baby and have alternatives for those days when the kid is sick and you have to go to work.

Janine Robben: Sharnel, when you say it’s the scariest question out there, is it the career bottoming out?

Sharnel Mesirow: It’s scary to me because I find it to be a very unfair question of choosing to be a mother or having a profession. It seems to be more and more apparent that women in the legal profession have to make this choice. In the law, you can’t effectively share your workload with someone. Especially in family law, where things change day to day, you can’t just say, "Okay, well, someone else is going to do this for you on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ll be available on Wednesday." I don’t think it’s fair, as a woman, to be forced to give up your life if you want to pursue advancing your career.

I never imagined this circumstance when I went to law school, because I didn’t consider the need to stifle your career if you wanted to have children. I think women lawyers should be able to have both. But I haven’t seen it happen very successfully. I’ve talked to a number of women attorneys who are starting families, and they work an 80-percent schedule, which is 50 hours instead of 60, I suppose. I still don’t understand that balance, because you want to be a good lawyer, you want to be a good mom, and not do either part-time. So, to me, it’s still not a clear path. It seems to me that Oregon has a huge gap of attorneys after about age 33 to 45. Does everyone quit and have their children and come back? Is that what happens to attorneys who want to be moms?

Ashlee Munson: I think it’s still the biggest disparity between men and women, because men don’t have this conversation. They don’t have to figure out what they are going to do when they’re on bed rest for two months and what happens to their cases. There are a number of women I know, because we’re in the child-bearing age, who actually just shut down their practices, if they’re solos, for a year, a few months, just to get through those early phases. And I don’t know when I’ve ever had a conversation with a male lawyer where they have said, "Well, I’m thinking about closing down my practice because I want to be a good dad for a couple months." We just don’t see that type of conversation.

Kathleen Rinks: I talk to a lot of male attorneys who go in late, leave work early, do the before-school, the after-school, the daycare. On a weekly basis I talk to attorneys to coordinate scheduling — male attorneys — who aren’t available at certain times because they’re the ones meeting the daycare provider at the parking garage or going home early because the kids have come home from school sick.

Ashlee Munson: I’m not trying to suggest that they aren’t good dads, because that’s what I see, as well. But there’s the pregnancy phase, and that pregnancy phase, to me — I mean, that’s a whole year, and that’s pretty big. And men just simply don’t have to live through that.

Jennifer Roumell: Especially if you started your career beforehand, where you’re able to give that 110 percent every day and you know what it takes and you know how to do it, and then there’s someone else relying on you where you have to get up and leave your desk at 5 because that daycare closes down and you don’t have that feeling that you’re giving that 110 percent.

Janine Robben: Do you think men fear that their careers are going to stall out because they’re making those daily choices, and do you think their careers actualy do stall out because they make those daily choices?

Kathleen Rinks: I think it’s more of a novelty still: "Isn’t that neat? He’s a good dad." They don’t get the same feedback that a woman leaving work to go home with a sick child would get from her peers and her colleagues. And the men I know who make those choices would never make it enough days of the week that it would affect their careers. It is more of a once-in-a-while. They’re not the last resort. It’s not their final responsibility.

Janine Robben: Do you think it is still the woman’s final responsibility?

Jennifer Roumell: I think it’s almost like your family unit decides that. When I had my first child, I didn’t get that at first. Slowly, around year one, I finally said, "Okay, we’re going to sit down and talk about this. Who is really advancing their career and who is going to be primary?" That’s not to say there aren’t days when my husband picks them up. My husband puts his time in, flexes his schedule, whatever. But I became the role of primary and he became the role of "Now go earn the money because now we have three mouths to feed."

Catriona McCracken (left): The choice for us to have kids has definitely impacted both of our careers, not just mine. This is one of the things I have been thinking a lot about lately. Are (women who stay home with children) in a financial position to do that because the other partner is making enough money? Because in order to make things happen now that happened in the ‘50s, you both have to have careers. I just don’t feel that we have that same choice to make so easily today.

Dady Blake: I’m curious. Would (a firm now) be fine with a guy coming in and going, "Yeah, I want to work part-time because I have two little kids at home"?

Jennifer Roumell: Actually, my firm (would). I think I was the first one who went part-time, and I think he was the second one. I do think the older partners in my firm went, "Oh, my gosh, it’s a guy." And then they said, "Okay, if that’s what you want to do."

Shari Gregory: Anecdotally, I hear (about) more men taking paternity leave, (but) I only know of two guys who’ve opted for the part-time schedule to take care of their families. And one had to leave his firm in order to get that because his firm thought he was nuts. The other one went to a firm that accommodated him.

Janine Robben: How about government law firms?

Katie Lane: We have a very family-friendly office. I don’t have kids, and I’m definitely in the minority. There are a couple of men that had careers at larger firms and have come to the county because it’s family friendly. It’s 8:00 to 5:00, and there are dads who have taken time off to take care of their kids, or have a different schedule to do caretaking. It’s sort of a non-issue, and it’s kind of expected.

Janine Robben: So it doesn’t impact career in your office?

Katie Lane: I think government work is a career choice in and of itself. You tend to have a lower salary; how advancement goes tends to be more structured.

Megan Roche ’03 (left): The firm that I work for is a "lifestyle" firm, so that the accepted practice is that everyone will have lives outside of the office. The billable hours are less, and there’s a bonus structure built in so if you want to put in the 60- or 70-hour work week you can, and then you’re compensated for that work. But it starts from the idea of being the more normal life that most of us would want, balancing work and your life. Even the partners who are giving out their cell phone numbers to the big clients will pick up their phones at times and say, "You know, I’m with my family. I can’t talk to you right now." That’s something that they set up as part of the relationship with the clients. It sort of normalizes you to clients: "You’re just like us, and your personal time is important."

Dady Blake: Is it fun?

Megan Roche: It’s a blast, because everyone is on the same playing field. There’re really not (salary discrepancies). There’s a salary chart, and in it you reference your experience, and that sets your salary range. I think the promotion is very much based on what you bring to the table. If you put your best brain power into a project that you can and that’s successful, I think that gets you further than just a high hourly billing report. In fact, they don’t send out an hourly report to all attorneys, so most people don’t know what hours other people are billing.

Sonya Fischer: I just think the law is like a mistress. I can just gravitate to it and I can just work forever, for hours and hours. And I can see where the people get sucked into the culture of these firms that allow them to do that. But now, having my own practice, the few times I have to prepare (for trial), my son is there with me. On Valentine’s Day he was there until 11 at night in my office. And he had movies and this and that, but it’s like he’s my partner. We’re doing this. And it’s a lot of hours and a lot of work, but it’s for the benefit of us and our family, and it’s what we’re doing together.

Janine Robben has been a member of the Oregon State Bar since 1980 and is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. She facilitated the two conversations that follow, both held on April 27, 2007 at the Oregon State Bar Center. Nancy Morgan of the Oregon Court Reporters Association reported and transcribed the discussions. The transcripts have been edited for clarity and length.

All photos are by Art Thompson Photography.

© 2007 Janine Robben

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