A conversation with Susan Harper, chair of the NYSBA Women in Law Section

On June 16, 2018, the New York State Bar Association House of Delegates authorized the conversion of the Committee on Women in the Law to a section. State Bar News sat down with Committee Chair and now Section Chair Susan L. Harper at the conclusion of the HOD meeting to discuss what this change will mean for serving women in society and the legal profession. Our discussion was regularly interrupted by HOD attendees offering congratulations, volunteering to help and expressing interest in joining the section.

What is the mission of the Women in Law Section?
The Women in Law Section serves as a voice to address issues, and a catalyst to support and advance opportunities, for women in the legal profession and all women under the law.
The section proposes legislation, the adoption and implementation of policy by the Executive Committee and House of Delegates, and other actions, including advocacy, education, networking and programing, to ensure the fair treatment of women under law and the full participation of women in the administration of justice and as equal members of the legal community.

How will the committee's work change now that it is a section?
Committees are limited in the size of their membership and the resources available to perform their work. As a committee, our 53 members actively engaged in education, recognition and networking, and addressed legislation and policy through seven subcommittees. As a section, membership is open to all women and men who are NYSBA members. This change provides a tremendous increase in opportunities to participate in a vibrant section and, in turn, provides many more minds and hands to devise and implement projects to benefit women in general and in the legal profession. Think of the possibilities. It's very exciting.

Why was the request to become a section made at this time?

The committee has been involved in legislative and related measures to improve the law on gender-related matters including pay equity, paid leave, salary history disclosure questions for prospective employees, sexual harassment and, most recently, addressing female prisoners' rights and women's equal rights under the New York State Constitution. With the #MeToo movement and focus of the legal profession on diversity and inclusion, this is an ideal time to become a section, which will enable to expand our work on public policy and professional development. My work on our legislative affairs subcommittee began with pay equity and then paid leave, and I saw the real impact of our committee's work on people in the workplace and in daily life. Today, New York is one of only a handful of states in our nation that offers paid family leave. We are proud of our achievements in this and many other areas. More, however, needs to be done, and we will continue this work.

Over the years, we received numerous requests to serve on the committee and, in some cases, very dedicated members stepped aside to make room for new voices. But as one committee member remarked recently, why should she have to step aside when she is passionate about these issues? Further, new NYSBA members have told us that they were inspired to join as a result of attending one of our programs or otherwise seeing the committee's work. This was expressed by an attendee at our CLE in May on "#MeToo: How to Navigate Sexual Harassment in the Workplace."

A look at the numbers in the profession shows the need and opportunities for a Women in Law Section. For the past 20 years, approximately 50 percent of law students have been women. NYSBA estimates that currently 40 percent of attorneys in New York State are women. Women, however, make up only 19 percent of law firm equity partnership - up 3 percent in a decade - and 30 percent of non-equity partners. American Bar Association data finds 24 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female general counsels.

The gender gap also is present in the role of trial attorneys, as described in NYSBA's Commercial and Federal Litigation Section 2017 report "If Not Now, When?" It found that female attorneys comprise just 25.2 percent of attorneys appearing in commercial and criminal cases in state and federal courts in New York State and 19.5 percent in complex commercial matters. In alternative dispute resolution, only 11 percent of arbitrators and 18 percent of neutrals are women. On average, 35 percent of federal judges and 31 percent of state judges are women.

We have certainly have made progress, and, with our new section, we have an incredible opportunity to achieve more.

Will the section be collaborating with other NYSBA groups and other organizations?
As a committee, we have worked with other sections and committees within NYSBA addressing gender issues. In addition to promoting the Commercial and Federal Litigation Section's report on women in the courts and ADR in the May 2017 NYSBA Journal devoted to women's issues, we incorporated the report's findings in both of our capstone programs: Women on the Move and our 2018 Spivack Symposium at Annual Meeting. We also collaborated with the Labor and Employment Law and Corporate Counsel Sections on our May #MeToo CLE program. Many other sections, such as Antitrust, have generously supported our programming over the years. Such coordination leverages the impact we have in addressing gender issues.

What initiatives do you foresee for the section?

We will be expanding our current projects including addressing women's issues through legislation, public policy initiatives and engagement. In recent years, there has been a significant amount of legislation introduced in New York State impacting women.

As a section, we also will ultimately be able to provide more professional development resources and support to women in the profession at all stages of their careers through such means as mentoring, enhancing skill sets, executive leadership development, and networking events. We will work with law firms, corporate counsel, and government and public service offices to reach out to women in the profession for their insight and feedback on what will help them most. We have also discussed developing support for the reengagement of women in the legal profession when they "off-ramp" to take off time to have and raise children, care for the elderly, or fulfill military obligations or for other reasons.

Geography is critical to us. Through our membership and outreach, we want to ensure that we are involving and reaching people throughout New York State, as well as our out-of-state members. In essence, becoming a section enables us to expand our footprint to serve women in society and the profession.

For more information about the work of the section and to join the Women In Law section, visit http://www.nysba.org/womeninlaw/.