Changing the Profession, One Lawyer at a Time

A new paradigm exists for women in law. The legal profession, once an old boys’ club, is a diverse and ever-evolving field where men and women of all backgrounds work together for the benefit of their clients. Female lawyers are now power brokers in the legal realm, with more women than ever in the position of managing partner or lead counsel in multi-million dollar transactions, for example.

With the great strides women have made in the business and practice of law, what does the future hold for female lawyers? How can female attorneys inspire young women to join the legal field? In this month’s Roundtable, we hear from six individuals who discuss their backgrounds and careers as women in law.

Our Moderator

Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board and a veteran public relations practitioner.

Our Panelists

Vivian Quinn (VQ) is a partner in Nixon Peabody’s Litigation Department and Deputy Group Leader of NP’s Products/Class Action & Aggregate Litigation team. She is experienced in all aspects of civil litigation with primary emphasis on national, regional and local products liability disputes.
Leanne Rakers (LR) is a principal at Harness Dickey & Pierce. She is a registered attorney admitted to practice before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Her practice is concentrated on preparing and prosecuting domestic and international patent applications in pharmaceutical, life science and biotechnological arts, including small molecule chemistry, therapeutic methods, organometallic chemistry and recombinant DNA technology.
Carole F. Barrett (CB) is a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law and is a registered patent attorney who specializes in brand selection and development, advertising law, copyrights, and licensing. Ms. Barrett is the founding principal of Barrett IP Law. Ms. Barrett was an equity partner at an international law firm and at Howard Rice, where she led the Trademark Counseling & Transactions Group and was a member of the firm’s diversity committee. Ms. Barrett served as in-house counsel at two international corporations. Ms. Barrett was a member of the Executive Committee of the Intellectual Property Section of the California State Bar and currently serves as the vice chair of its Trademark Interest Group.
Miriam Kim (MK) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Munger, Tolles & Olson whose practice focuses on intellectual property matters, complex civil litigation, and internal investigations for high technology companies. Ms. Kim is President-Elect of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area and was named one of the “Best Lawyers Under 40” by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association in 2014. She is a frequent speaker on work life balance and diversity issues.
Lisa Stalteri (LS) is the Co-chair of Hopkins & Carley’s Real Estate Practice Group. For more than 25 years, Ms. Stalteri has counseled public and private companies and high net worth individuals in the acquisition, disposition, financing, construction and leasing of real estate. Ms. Stalteri has a broad network of key professionals and service providers in the real estate industry including lenders, real estate and mortgage brokers, environmental consultants, accountants, architects and contractors that allows Ms. Stalteri to assist her clients in putting together an effective integrated team to close their deal.​
Maureen Dorney (MD) is the founder of Paradigm Counsel, LLP. She has over 20 years of experience representing public and venture-backed technology and media companies. Prior to forming Paradigm Counsel, Ms. Dorney chaired the Technology Transactions Group as a partner at Gray Cary and subsequently co-chaired the Technology and Sourcing Group at its successor firm, DLA Piper. Ms. Dorney is named in The International Who’s Who of Internet and e-Commerce Lawyers 2008 and by the Recorder as one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Best Lawyers (2012-2013).


NG: What inspired you to become an attorney?

VQ: I worked for several years in higher education at Columbia University and had a good deal of contact with the general counsel at NYU during my early legal career. I could see that getting a juris doctor would be very impactful not only in helping to guide institutions of higher education, but in the larger business community as well.

LR: I am a patent attorney. Before law school, however, I worked at a biotech research company and co-invented a new cloning process. Therefore, I got to work with patent attorneys while employed in the lab as a scientist. As a result, I became interested in the role an attorney can play in science and decided to pursue that career path.

CB: Another woman attorney inspired me. She made a mid-life course correction from teacher to attorney and in her story I saw the possibility that I could do the same. She not only inspired me, she challenged me to go where she had gone. Convinced that I had everything to gain, I took the LSATs, applied to law school, quit my teaching position and started a new chapter.

MK: My family’s faith and social justice roots inspired me to become an attorney. My great-grandfather was converted by American missionaries and persecuted by fellow Confucian villagers for his beliefs. My grandfather was persecuted and imprisoned in a coffin-size cell in Pyongyang, North Korea after he refused to join a People’s Committee organized by the Soviet-backed leadership. After his release, he hid in the wilderness and escaped to South Korea in the middle of the night with his children, including my father.

Our family’s faith and social justice roots implanted in me the importance of promoting justice and peace. In the wake of the LA riots, this intensified as I witnessed Korean Americans march past damaged businesses chanting, “We want justice, we want peace.” It was during that time that I was inspired to become a lawyer and use my skills and resources to promote justice and peace, particularly for disadvantaged communities.

LS: I became inspired to become an attorney over the course of my political science and history classes in high school and college. So many important figures in history had been attorneys and had shaped political processes, economies, industries and social movements. I wanted to have an impact on the world and thought being an attorney would help me do that.

MD: Between undergrad and law school, I managed the family construction business. In that role I managed many legal issues and realized that I enjoyed using a combination of business and legal skills to contribute to a company’s success.

NG: How has the legal field evolved during your time in law school and practicing law? Which legal trends do you see impacting the future of practicing law?

VQ: When I started to practice at a large, well-respected Wall Street firm in the mid 1990s, great emphasis was placed on strategic thinking and counseling large national and international companies. While strategy and counseling remain of utmost importance, there is a growing need for industry focus, being limber, and working effectively and efficiently to provide the utmost of assistance to our business clients.

LR: One of the more noticeable changes in the legal field is blogging and the role of social media. When I graduated from law school and first began private practice, it was uncommon to be keeping up-to-date on the law with blogs and other social media outlets. However, today it has emerged as a requirement. Simply, we receive a lot of information a lot faster. I think this broader paradigm has helped attorneys to better expand not only their immediate sphere of influence, but also their substantive legal knowledge base at an amplified pace.

A legal trend I see impacting the future practice of law is the evolution of the billing relationship with clients. Agility, flexibility and customization is a given in today’s commercial environment, where everyone wants more for less. You have to be creative to figure out how to run your legal practice efficiently, effectively and more economically, i.e., “differently” in order to meet each client’s specific demands. Alternative fee arrangements, flexible personnel structures and the never-ending incorporation of new technologies must be the daily norm. And by the way… they don’t teach you how to deal with this in law school.

CB: Firms have evolved into multi-national mega-firms. Mid-sized firms are larger than the largest firms were when I started practicing. Technology has and will continue to revolutionize the way we practice. Small groups are able to split off from large firms for more independence and because of technology, are able to provide the same level of service as their former large firm. Technology and other cost saving measures will enable solo practitioners, small firms and boutiques to compete with larger firms by offering expertise in certain practice areas at attractive rates or flat fees.

MK: I graduated from law school in 2002 after the burst of the dot-com bubble. Since then, the legal field has evolved due to two key factors: technological developments and increasing economic pressures. When I started my legal career, I did my first document review in a conference room with boxes of paper and different colored post-it flags (red for privilege, green for produce, etc.). Today, lawyers have an ethical duty of technological competence, and there are many companies developing new tools and capabilities to keep pace with ever-changing technology. In addition, increasing economic pressures have impacted the practice of law. Courts and legal service organizations are dealing with budget cuts, clients are demanding that lawyers provide more cost-effective services, and big law firms are doing more alternative fee arrangements.

LS: One evolution is the increase in the number of women graduating from law school. This increase in female graduates, however, has not translated into a significantly larger number of women practicing law or becoming partners in private practice. I believe that  some trends in the practice of law, though, are starting to have a positive impact on the retention of women attorneys. One is the improvement in the ability to effectively practice law remotely. Being able to effectively work remotely has made it more possible to successfully practice law while juggling multiple demands. Such multiple demands may be raising a family, caring for aging parents, relocating for a partner’s career, relocating to a more affordable area, and pursuing other interests when a unique opportunity presents itself.

Another trend is the growth of in-house legal positions, and the increase in female in-house counsel. One impact of the increase in female in-house counsel is the increase in women’s ability to direct legal work.

MD: The legal field today is a shrinking market, and the cost of law school has risen rather dramatically. Going into the law should not be an option because you do not know what else to do or because your family expects it. You have to love the law, do well in school and be ready to build a successful practice. Otherwise, you need to find another profession.

NG: Which issues for female lawyers have positively changed during your career? Are there issues you believe are still pressing?

VQ: My legal career has been blessed with many opportunities. The diversity in my firm and practice includes decision makers and clients, both male and female, who are supportive of women and who value the contributions of all. When I visit with women from other firms, I hear that origination (business generation) credit continues to play a role in their ability to move to the highest echelon at their respective firms. It is always important to press for more involvement by a diverse group of individuals in leadership, business planning, client pitches, and all aspects of the practice.

LR: When I was in law school, there were plenty of female law students. However, I do notice more females leaving our profession as we get older. Today, I see more firms committed to retaining women as partners and in critical leadership roles. I think this is a positive step in the right direction.

I believe there are many challenges regarding women in senior positions and leadership roles that still need attention and resolution, especially in patent law. Clearly, it doesn’t appear that we have enough female patent attorneys (particularly at the partnership level) with engineering and scientific backgrounds, a particularly pervasive challenge for both the science/tech and legal industries as a whole.

CB: When I interviewed for my first job, there were no women partners at many of the firms. At one of the firms, there were no women associates. I was a registered patent attorney and when I was hired for my second job at an international corporation, the intellectual property group had no women attorneys. So there was no one who looked like me.

Progress has been made. Today, we have more seats at the table. There are mentors for female lawyers. But we know that the battle for gender equality is far from resolved. There is still a large gap, particularly among equity partners and in the top positions in-house. Female attorneys still make less money than male attorneys. The mergers of the mega-firms have not improved the statistics with respect to the numbers of female partners. Given the rate of progress, it will take several more generations before parity is achieved.

Flextime and part time options have been some help to women and men, but these options must be real and must come with the understanding that those who choose them are valued team members.

MK: The work-life balance dialogue has become more public and prominent during my career. This is particularly true of parental leave policies as more and more tech companies like Facebook and Netflix expand their policies for new moms and dads. While the increased dialogue surrounding work life balance affects both female and male lawyers, I believe it has positively impacted women, particularly those who want to have children. In order to have a real impact on female lawyers, however, both women and men must take advantage of policies like parental leave and reduced hours and suffer no adverse consequences for doing so.

LS: The issues for female attorneys that have positively changed: the increase in the number of female attorneys (and those practicing in areas of law that have been male-dominated); the increasing acceptance of working remotely and the ability to effectively do so; the increase in women’s ability to direct legal work and the increasing acceptance of directing legal work to female attorneys. Some of the issues that continue to be pressing: the direction of legal work (and origination credit for that work) to female attorneys and the integration of female attorneys into meaningful management roles within law firms and legal departments.

MD: Frankly, I do not think the issues have changed very much. More women are in the profession, but most find it as hard as ever to find the right work-life balance. Many large corporations and law firms now largely have supportive policies on things like maternity and paternity leave, part-time schedules and the ability to work at home. However, as almost any attorney that you ask will tell you, taking too much advantage of those programs can hurt your career, because supervisors still hold leaves and part-time schedules against the attorney who takes advantage of them. In smaller corporations and law firms even fewer options are available. One of the reasons that I started Paradigm Counsel was to design a firm that enabled everyone, attorneys, paralegals and administrative staff, to have options to balance our fast-paced, challenging work with taking care of family and outside interests. More organizations need to do the same thing.

NG: As the legal profession becomes more entrepreneurial, which skills do you think will prove particularly important for female attorneys? Are there any areas in which you think being a woman provides an edge?

VQ: I do not believe that gender allows one to have an edge on any particular skillset. To succeed in the legal industry one needs a positive attitude, strong work ethic, and ability to work well as part of a team. The historic emphasis on and preference for extroverts is misplaced. Intuition and thoughtfulness are the ultimate gold star in finding a path forward for our clients and our firms.

LR: Business, marketing and management skills will be important for any attorney female or male. I have noticed being a woman can provide advantages with (1) female clients and (2) companies seeking diversity, specifically as it pertains to hiring vendors and contractors.

CB: Flexibility, the ability to multi-task; great people skills; creativity; willingness to go the extra mile; putting other people first.

MK: Client relationship skills and business development skills are particularly important for all attorneys, including female attorneys. We are in a professional services industry, and we need to continue to develop our ability to learn our clients’ and prospective clients’ businesses, serve their needs, and solve their problems. But simply solving a problem is not enough. Building an effective relationship based on trust and confidence is essential to maintaining a strong client relationship. I try to foster trust and confidence through all that I do for my clients: setting and keeping to a budget, meeting their expectations on deadlines and quality of work, and advising them on their most significant legal issues.

As more and more women rise in the in-house ranks, I think being a woman can help you build strong relationships with women clients. Women tend to be good at connecting with and helping each other; we need to learn to adapt these relational skills to attract and maintain clients.

LS: As the profession becomes more entrepreneurial, your ability and comfort with marketing is critical. Knowing your client’s business and industry is part of that. In businesses and industries that were historically male-dominated, it was not easy or comfortable for women to immerse themselves to the degree necessary to know the industry and forge the relationships that ultimately result in the direction of legal work. It will be important for female attorneys to be persistent and resilient to acquire the industry knowledge and forge the relationships that result in the direction of legal work.

Being a woman may provide an edge in the availability of opportunities for legal work and management positions offered in part because of diversity requirements or initiatives. Capitalizing on those opportunities to make them meaningful and lasting will be key.

MD: I think that being entrepreneurial is critical in today’s legal climate. Attorneys generally, and women especially, are not taught anything about this and tend to be introverts by nature. Being entrepreneurial means many things. First you must really look at developing a broad skill set in your chosen area, so that you have maximum value. Second, you must develop good relationships with the more senior attorneys and other executives or managers where you work, but most importantly with clients and potential referral sources. You cannot start too soon to build relationships. Trusted relationships are the primary source of work for most attorneys over time. I think women are better at relationship-building, but they often hold back from doing so in a professional context and women are more reluctant to ask for the chance to do the work. Too many times, the primary advice that women are given, is to find a mentor. Never rely on one person to build your career, you need to work with many people and think about developing the skills that will advance your career over the long run.

NG: Who are some of your legal role models? Why do these individuals inspire you?

VQ: Christy Jones at Butler Snow has been a terrific role model for many attorneys. She is strong, smart, and charming and a terrific trial attorney.

LR: I do have several legal role models within my firm, but I don’t have a well-known name to provide. Additionally, I also strive to mentor younger, female associates on their way up.

CB: One of the attorneys who inspired me as a woman who stood about 4 foot 10 inches. When she graduated from law school she was offered a job as a legal secretary. She took it and from there she worked her way up…when I met her she was trademark counsel at a multinational corporation and was on the board of trustees at her law school. No one and nothing was going to stop her. She was a world traveler and well read. She was giving of her time and was a great mentor to me.

MK: I have been inspired by many legal role models involved in the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area. On top of that long list is Justice Joyce L. Kennard who retired in 2014 after 25 years on the California Supreme Court. Born in Indonesia, Justice Kennard was confined to an internment camp during the Japanese occupation and immigrated to the United States at age 20. As the first Asian American justice on the California Supreme Court, Justice Kennard was a trailblazer for a diverse judiciary and an inspiration to me as an Asian American woman.

I also have numerous role models at my firm, including women like Kristin Linsley Myles and Carolyn Luedtke who inspire me with their example to be the best lawyer and mother I can be. But I also want to highlight another colleague – Gregory Stone – to emphasize that role models don’t need to look like you. Greg is a trial lawyer who grew up on a cattle ranch northeast of Bakersfield. Despite our differences, I am inspired by his loyalty and commitment to his clients and colleagues, his ability to present complex evidence in a simple manner that makes sense, and his ability to build and lead an effective team.

LS: Some of my legal role models have been attorneys with whom I have worked who have remained, throughout their careers, happy, well-rounded and interesting beyond the practice of law. They have all been men.

MD: The truth is that I never had role models. What I did was look at all of the partners that I worked with and saw what they did that was worth emulating and what was not. For that reason, I do not want to name specific individuals. One person was better at building relationships. Another was stellar at embracing new areas of expertise related to legal and technology developments. Still another was a great people manager. I would advise women to study every attorney and executive that they work with and then incorporate what they admire about each person, but to do that in a way that takes into account what works for their personality.

NG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given throughout your legal career? What advice would you give to young women who aspire to become lawyers? ​

VQ: My favorite saying is by Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist – something like “Teach your children not what to be committed to, but the value/power of commitment.” Nothing is more rewarding than being fully engaged in solving a problem or finding a creative solution for a colleague or a client. We thrive in the practice of law by stepping up to contribute what we have to offer — let’s get going.

LR: Best advice: Find a mentor, or better yet… a sponsor. These individuals will prove invaluable to your career.

Let’s be practical, attorneys sell legal services. So, in addition to learning the law and finding the right mentor(s), learn and continue to develop and hone your business skills. Remember, private practice is a client-centric business. Dedicate yourself to delivering extraordinary legal skills and relentlessly excellent client service and you will be successful.

CB: The best piece of advice I have been given is that life is too short and every day is too long to do a job that you don’t love, so if you don’t love what you are doing, do something else. That is what I tell young lawyers and not-so-young lawyers who come to me for advice. Practice the kind of law you love, with people you respect for people you respect – everything else will take care of itself. And if you can’t find a kind of law you have a passion for, find something you do have a passion for and do that.

I would tell young women that it’s not what you see in the movies or on television. I would also tell them that even if they never practice law or only practice for a few years, studying the law alone or in combination with another program, is great training.

MK: Before I had children, I attended a Berkeley Law School young alumni event where one of the women suggested that you work as hard as you can before you have children. Her rationale was simple: If you build a reputation as a committed lawyer before you have children, clients and colleagues will not question your commitment after you have children. I followed her advice, had two children, and later made partner while working a reduced-hour schedule.

I would tell young women who aspire to become lawyers that it is a difficult career that should only be pursued if you have the passion and drive to overcome the challenges to come. I have been happy as a lawyer, but lawyers suffer high rates of depression, alcoholism and divorce. I would not advise anyone to subject themselves to these risks unless they are ready for challenges along the way.

LS: The best piece of advice I’ve been given throughout my legal career is “Being a lawyer is just one part of you. Remember the rest of you and live those parts as well.”

To those who aspire to become lawyers, it is a lot of work, but it opens doors that may not otherwise be open and creates opportunities to do more and have more of an impact.

MD: No one piece of advice stands out for me. I think too much advice focuses on finding a mentor. I think that is a mistake. To advance, you need a broad base of support. In today’s world, the idea that one powerful person can make your career is a myth. You need to develop a broad set of skills and multiple relationships, while building the type of legal practice in your chosen area that you can take anywhere. I would add that being comfortable speaking in public is essential.

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