Letter From The President Of The New Jersey State Bar Association

2011-09-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel :

Mary Philbrook became the first woman in New Jersey to be admitted to the bar in 1894.

Five decades ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite having the recommendation of the dean of Harvard Law School, was turned down for a Supreme Court clerkship because she was a woman.

And in 1982, Marie Garibaldi became the first woman to sit on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Women lawyers and judges like Ms. Philbrook, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Garibaldi and the generations of women who broke down barriers in this profession charted a course to create opportunities for women like me to become stakeholders in the fair administration of justice. Yet so much more needs to be done, and there is no better time to continue the dialogue about just how to do that than at the upcoming "Women Rising Up the Ladder" - the second annual conference of the New Jersey State Bar Association's Women in the Profession section. The September 27 event will be held at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick.

A by-the-numbers accounting of women's success in today's legal profession is stark. Women are graduating law school in nearly equal numbers as men. Yet in the workforce, the picture is much different.

Nationally, 32 percent of lawyers working in law firms are women, and only 19.43 percent of those female lawyers are partners - a rate that has changed very little since The Association for Legal Career Professionals started tracking the information in 1993. Another sobering figure is that an examination of 20 law firms in New Jersey last year showed minimal progress for minorities who barely inched forward, and the ranks of women lawyers shrunk to 260 women in partner and non-partner positions, compared to 293 the year before.Even our judiciary - which has a national reputation for excellence and integrity, and where this fall women will become the majority on the New Jersey Supreme Court - remains largely a bastion of white men.

I was proud this May when I became the 113th president - and only the seventh woman - to serve as president of the New Jersey State Bar Association in its history, but I look forward to the day when there have been so many women in this position that it is no longer worth noting the president's gender.

While we should take great pride each time a woman achieves a new first in this field, that cannot be enough. We should not be satisfied with headlines declaring another first achieved by a woman lawyer. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to push harder on behalf of ourselves and future generations of women to reach the day when we will not be an under-represented group and the achievement of a woman will not be noted as a novelty.

Each of us is capable of making profound changes on a personal level through mentoring. There is no more important resource in our arsenal of skills to affect and advance the career of women lawyers than offering guidance as a mentor. Making institutional changes in law firms, bar groups and state courts around the country and developing formal and informal mentoring networks are also critical to forward progress. To that end, the New Jersey State Bar Association has focused on measures to advance women in the profession through several recent actions, including designating women as among the list of under-represented groups who are eligible to serve in at-large seats on our governing body, the Board of Trustees.

Another is the association's annual women's leadership conference that is coming up. The conference, first held last year after our Women in the Profession Section was reinvigorated, is meant to serve as a platform for women lawyers to learn how to get on the path to leadership in private practice, on the bench, in government service and in the corporate world. Justice Garibaldi was honored during the first conference and will be a keynote speaker this year. This year's event will feature frank discussions with some of the most powerful women in New Jersey, and it also recognizes the contributions of women like Justice Garibaldi, who was awarded the association's first-ever Award for Distinguished Service and Excellence by the Section.

Mentoring and conferences such as this help make the legal profession stronger.

Hopefully, the contributions of the women who have achieved success in the legal profession will serve as an inspiration and guide for the next generation of female attorneys. It is time to see an increase in the ranks of women on the bench and in private practice and public sector positions alike.

Very truly yours,

Susan A. Feeney

Ms. Feeney is a Partner at McCarter & English LLP in Newark.