Throughout this month, we will be posting portraits of female legal pioneers, discussing issues of concern for women in the law, recognizing women in law and in tech working towards securing access to justice, and celebrating women who exemplify the term ‘role model’ for both attorneys and citizens.
Patricia Schroeder, who spent 24 years in the United States House of Representatives, died earlier this week. She was a pilot (earning her pilot’s license at age 15), Harvard Law School graduate (where she was one of 15 women in a class of over 500), mother of two, wife, the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, and the first woman to serve on the Armed Services Committee.
Of the Family Medical Leave Act, which she introduced in 1985 and which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994, she said, “We finally got it through after nine years. I was very happy to move it along. And we did a lot of things. We had to put in there that they were going to study it for two years to make sure that businesses didn’t crumble all over America like we were told they would. They didn’t.”
From a 2015 interview she did with the U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, when asked what advice she would give to a prospective woman candidate who was running for Congress, she said:
I would say to do it. I think women wait to be discovered. All the books that have come out lately only confirm what I think. They keep saying men will apply for a job if they’re only 60-percent qualified, but women have to be 100-percent-plus. They’re very cautious about, “Oh, well maybe.” Or, “If I have all that, won’t somebody find me and ask me to do it?” They’re not going to ask you to do it. You’re going to have to raise your hand and say, “I’m going to do it. Deal with it.” It’s getting easier because each generation is getting a little more empowered. But telling women just to do it is terribly important, because if they don’t go out there, they’ll always find someone else to run. And they’re not just going to come knock on your door and say, “Oh, we just happened to notice, you have all of the wonderful attributes that would make a perfect candidate.” That’s not going to happen.
I was so frustrated when I ran. I was so angry about the Vietnam War. I was so angry about all the different things that were happening. And I ran because I thought, “Well, somebody’s got to stand up and say something about this.” My frustration now is when I hear people saying, “We’re frustrated with everything, we’re not going to bother.” Well, if you don’t bother, it’s only going to get worse. You’ve really got to bother. Freedom is also a responsibility. It’s a responsibility of every citizen to realize, they’ve got to participate, and if you don’t participate and you don’t want to be part of the game, then you really don’t have any right to complain. You really have no right to complain. If you vote and if you get out there and you work for candidates that you believe in, you can change it, you can overrule so many things.
We think this advice translates to most workplaces. In our work, we see law firm leadership beginning to drive real change at law firms by focusing on making sure the workplace is a diverse and inclusive space. Because while the proportion of female attorneys has increased from 34% to 37.7% at U.S. law firms, from 29.4% to 33% among non-equity partners, and from 19.2% to 23.3% among equity partners, according to a 2021 survey by Law360, women still make up just over 25% of all attorneys appearing in court; women make up less than 20% of civil litigators appearing in court; and women make up less than 20% of litigators in cases involving five or more parties. What’s more, 85% of female attorneys of color will leave large firms within seven years of starting the practice of law.
So it’s apparent that women still, as Schroeder said, “bother.” If you’re a female litigator, ask to go to court. Ask to do pro bono. Ask to examine or cross-examine the witnesses you want. Do not succumb to the idea that if the lead partner really wanted your talents or valued your perspective then they would ask you for it.
If you’re a law firm client, demand diverse legal teams from your firm.
If you’re in a position of leadership at a law firm, think about the unique opportunity you have to become purpose-driven global leaders, at the forefront of social change.