By: Karim Oddette Salamán-Sánchez
On Friday, March 6, 2015, Ms. JD, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the success of aspiring women lawyers, held its 7th Annual Conference. It took place at UC Hasting College of the Law in San Francisco, California. Ms. JD’s mission is to advance women in the legal field and provide them with the tools they need to overcome the obstacles they encounter throughout their careers.
Eleven students representing the National Women Law Students’ Organization (NWLSO) of the University of Puerto Rico School of Law attended the Conference with the intent to learn from women’s experiences as lawyers.
UC Hastings Professor Joan Williams gave the opening speech and discussed some of the problems women face when transitioning from law school to the legal workplace. According to Professor Williams, the prove-it-again problem consists of women being judged on performance while their male counterparts are judged on their potential. Many women who start their careers as law clerks are often assigned tasks such as making calls, archiving documents, and writing letters. As a result of this, women often have to climb an endless ladder to advance in their career and are stuck in the “paper clip committee.”
Professor Williams’ recommendation was to be assertive, to take on more responsibility and to redirect the lower level requests. “The key is to interrupt the bias by discussing the potential before the performance.” NWLSO-UPR’s Karla V. Montañez-Soto felt identified with this advice, as she had experienced first hand the prove-it-again problem. Professor Williams encouraged women to communicate their concerns with their supervisors and let them know that they have the capacity to become not only a lawyer, but a great one.
The Conference was divided into panel sessions composed of extraordinary women and men who work every day to promote gender equality in their businesses, law firms, and law schools.
The first session focused on leadership. The panelists shared their motivations to pursue legal careers and how they managed to develop leadership skills. All of them agreed that law school programs such as NWLSO are key to strengthening these abilities.
The second session discussed the interaction of women groups with other diversity groups to make Law a profession where we can all advance together. Joanne Villanueva of Latham and Watkins stressed that the lack of diversity in any group sends a clear message that they aren’t speaking to everyone. Mary Snapp from the Microsoft Law and Corporate Affairs Department also spoke out about this issue. “If we want law firms to have diversity, it’s important to attract diverse students to law schools.”
The third session focused on the importance of mentoring. NWLSO-UPR’s Alejandra Muñiz-Marcial summarized the discussion by sharing her experience. “My favorite part of the Ms. JD conference was when they spoke about the mentor/mentee relationship. It’s important to have one, but it’s also important to use it wisely. I liked how they highlighted the importance of finding a mentor who is willing to teach, as well as being prepared as a mentee to ask specific questions.”
The fourth session gave the participants the choice of attending one of five workshops. NWLSO-UPR’s Laneyscha Echeverría-Méndez attended Planning for the future together: How to write a business plan, where four lawyer-entrepreneurs shared their experiences on how they integrated the Law to their businesses. They also invited women to think about businesses they aspire to have and carefully analyze the process of starting one.
For NWLSO-UPR’s Winedmarie Andújar-Torres the best session of the Conference was a video shown about the Ms. JD Global Education Fund, which enables women in developing countries to pursue a legal education. Each year the Global Education Fund alongside the Carnegie Corporation sponsors eight students from Uganda to pursue their dreams of becoming a lawyer. The video illustrates the Ugandan students talking about their motivations and showing their gratitude for the extraordinary experience.
Ms. JD also presented The Incredible Men (TIM) Initiative, which celebrates men who actively participate in the gender equality movement within the profession. Ms. JD’s Board Member, Tim Miller, stated that men can be feminists, but the term has been charged with a negative connotation, and we need to take it back. To do so, the panelists established that a good strategy is to frame the concept as fairness or justice, because feminism should concern all genders.
NWLSO-UPR’s Angelee Ortiz-Ortiz took advantage of the TIM panel to discuss the recent proposal for implementing gender perspective in Puerto Rico’s public education system. “In a country where male adults lead most of the political discussions and there is a low female representation in positions of power, how do we bring the older male generation to really consider the female perspective in order to engage in a more equal and fair debate?” she asked.
“That’s a difficult question that does not have a perfect answer. Sadly, as we have witnessed, it often comes only with generational change. It seems like we have to sit and let it wash away. But don’t accept that. As female leaders and active members of organizations such as NWLSO, empower women to acknowledge that this has a political solution. Whether it be pressuring male legislators to pass affirmative action laws (for example: if they don’t, they won’t get your votes) or legislation such as gender perspective in the educational curriculum. The best way for male adults to understand these issues is by familiarity: grasping issues that affect women and becoming active in debates and solutions that seek equality. For this, it is important that women are vocal and active about including men in their discussions, organizations, and activities. Men appreciate that. As people better understand things, we will see a change!” one of the panelists replied.
As the Conference came to an end, we felt grateful for the opportunity. Each one of us took advantage of the discussions and learned something new from them. NWLSO-UPR’s Viviana Alí-Fortuño appreciated being before a panel of highly qualified lawyers from a variety of areas within the law, who have excelled in the integration of gender equality for women in the legal workplace. NWLSO-UPR’s Janice Crespo thinks that conferences like this one provide a meeting space for like-minded women, where they can share ideas and work towards common goals.
As for me, the whole experience at the Ms. JD Conference was extremely gratifying. My favorite part was the panel of the TIM Initiative. Understanding a male’s point of view and approach to the issues that need to be addressed for the gender equality in our careers was an eye opener. One of the most important things I took from this experience was an advice given by Mr. Jerome C. Roth from Munger, Tolles and Olson. “Women should not feel guilty by the standards set for them by society. No one should care if it’s appropriate or not to have a close-door meeting with your boss or if you go on a business trip with a male colleague. To advance in you career you need to be part of the decision-making process and if it happens to be closed-door, you need to be in that office, you need to go on that trip. You need to take control of your career!”
Finally, for NWLSO-UPR’s President, Jeannette Ortiz-Ortiz, it was great meeting Elizabeth Hague in person, the Ms. JD Board Member who has helped us from the very beginning to develop our chapter. “My favorite part of the trip was meeting amazing women from all around and sharing this experience with my future colleagues. There is something about women coming together that inspires me to do more. One of my favorite quotes from the Conference was ‘For all the women who are not on your side, kill them with kindness and hope they’ll join you in the battle afterwards’.”
To see the pictures of this event click HERE