Chief Judge Diane P. Wood — only the second woman to sit on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — was the lone female professor at the University of Chicago Law School when she joined the faculty in 1981.
“I don’t think I fully appreciated what an isolating of a position it was,” Wood said, during a panel discussion at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in early March, “Advancing Women in the Law.”
“More challenging, my older child was 19 months old, my second child was 2 weeks old and I had just gotten out of the hospital from complications related to the birth of my second child. It was a rough go. Being a mother with such young children was a difficult thing to balance in this entirely male group.”
Wood remained the law school faculty’s only mother until 1997 — a fact that elicited audible gasps from the audience when she said it.
Seated beside Wood were her chief judge counterparts in Illinois’ federal district courts — Sara L. Darrow, of the Central District; Rebecca R. Pallmeyer of the Northern District and Nancy J. Rosenstengel of the Southern District — as well as U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall, who moderated the panel.
The five jurists described instances when their gender was an obstacle to their legal careers, and how they sought to address gender inequality in their own courtrooms.
The women’s summit, hosted by the American Bar Association and the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, was prompted in part by a first-of-its-kind study that explored the reasons behind large numbers of experienced attorneys leaving the profession.
In 2018, for example, female attorneys represent only 20% of law firm equity partners, even though they make up between 45% and 50% of entering law firm associates, according to data from the National Association for Law Placement.
The study, “Walking Out the Door,” was authored by Stephanie A. Scharf and Roberta D. Liebenberg, and surveyed more than 1,200 senior women and men in large firms who have been in practice for at least 15 years.
Liebenberg, a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan & Black, R.P.C., is a former chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession.
Scharf, a founding partner at Scharf Banks Marmor LLC, is currently the chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.
“We are way past the point where mere lip service to the goal of gender equality in the profession will suffice,” Liebenberg and Scharf wrote in the study.
“All of us must act with a sense of urgency to take the long-overdue steps necessary to level the playing field for senior women lawyers, which is necessary for law firms to succeed in a market that is increasingly demanding not only a professed commitment to diversity and inclusion, but actual proof of success in achieving that objective.”
The summit featured four discussion panels that explored the myriad obstacles facing women and minority women who wish to advance their legal careers.
The first panel, ‘Why Do Women Stay and Why Do They Leave,” focused on the findings of the study, which was initiated by then-ABA President Hilarie Bass, who launched the Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law Research Initiative in 2017.
In the second session, ‘What Will Drive Change: Law Firm Leaders Weigh In,’ the panelists concentrated on effective strategies for driving change and the third session, ‘New Ways to Break Old Barriers,’ offered a perspective on diversity from in-house general counsels.
The final panel was composed of five women federal judges in Illinois, including four chief justices who currently serve on the U.S. District courts and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The following pages offer insight into the legal profession’s gender gap problem that attempts to go beyond the numbers and statistics by sharing some stories and commentary from five women — Wood, Pallmeyer, Darrow, Rosenstengel and Kendall — who serve on the federal judiciary in Illinois.
All of the statistics referenced are findings from “Walking Out the Door.”
58% of experienced women lawyers cite caretaking commitments as an “important” influence for leaving their firm:
Chief Judge Nancy J. Rosenstengel said she was working in private practice as a 5th year associate in the late 1990s when she was expecting her first child.
She asked one of the partners at the time, “Do I transfer my cases when I take maternity leave?”
“He said, ‘I have no idea, I’ll get back to you.’ Because associates didn’t have babies. He came back to me next day and said, ‘You will need to call in every day and go through your mail, and find people to cover for your cases.”
Since Rosenstengel knew having a family was important to her, she decided to leave private practice.
But she was soon hired by U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy in 1998. Rosenstengel served as his law clerk until she was sworn as clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in October 2009.
46% of experienced women lawyers surveyed cited work/life balance as an “important” influence for leaving their firm:
Then-an assistant U.S. Attorney in the central district of Illinois, Darrow was expecting her sixth child while preparing a gang racketeering case for trial.
Although Darrow had spent about three years working on the case, she said a federal judge was unwilling to reschedule the upcoming trial, which was set to begin three weeks after her due date.
“The only option was for me to come back or have another AUSA take over, which was really an insurmountable challenge,” Darrow said. “I didn’t really ask anybody — I showed up and brought the baby to work for a few months.”
At one point during the trial, Darrow said, the judge resumed while she was on a nursing break.
“Frankly, they didn’t know what to do with me,” Darrow said. “I was the only woman who worked at any of those prosecutor offices.”
While Wood was in the hospital recovering from complications after her second child was born, she said she received a law review manuscript from one of her male colleagues, who was seeking her feedback.
Given the circumstances, Wood said she didn’t provide any comments.
“I just couldn’t quite muster up the energy,” she said.
In her early years at the law school, she was caring for her three children — the oldest of whom was age four.
“And [the male colleague] was a little miffed that I had not commented on this article. And it led to a few years of trying to figure out how much time to give the law school and how much time to give these extremely young children.”
48% of women, 11% of men, said they felt they missed out on a desirable assignment, on account of their gender:
Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer described a situation while she was in private practice when she felt she’d been overlooked for an opportunity at work.
“I was very disappointed about it,” she said. “When I questioned the partner, I was told, ‘It’s because you’re married and we knew you didn’t want to travel.’ Well, you know the punchline: the young man who got the job, junior to me, was also married and to solve his problem the law firm flew his wife to be with him.”
Pallmeyer’s advice: “Find a life partner who loves you and will care about your career just as much as he or she cares about their career. In other words, you are as important to that person as him or herself.”
53% of women, 7% of men said they had been denied or overlooked for an advancement or promotion, on account of their gender:
As the first female prosecutor to work for the Henry County State’s Attorney’s Office, Darrow said she experienced some internal resistance that threatened to derail her promotion to first assistant state’s attorney in the late 1990s.
“The sheriff wouldn’t work with me,” Darrow said. “I was next in line to become the first assistant and the county board wouldn’t approve me because of that issue.”
She said she persuaded the state’s attorney “to make a pitch to the county board that I would work for my current salary, for six months, do my job and that job and if they were satisfied then I could get the position.”
For Darrow, her proposal ultimately worked out.
After serving for three years as first assistant state’s attorney in Henry County, she became a federal prosecutor in the central district of Illinois. In 2011, President Barack Obama nominated Darrow to serve on the U.S. District court, where she currently presides as chief justice.
Darrow’s advice: “Be creative and advocate for yourself. Those are the two themes that have helped me overcome those challenges.”
63% of women, 2% of men said they had been perceived as less committed to her/his career, on account of their gender:
U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall married her high school sweetheart when she was 19 year old and the couple went on to Northwestern University together, while raising their first child.
When Kendall graduated, she planned to attend Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. At the time, she and her husband were expecting twins.
Tragically, her son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome during her first week of law school.
“I told the registrar, I would like to defer for a year,” Kendall said. “I was devastated, dealing with this loss, and plus I had a newborn at home.”
However, she was not given the option to defer. Kendall was told she could reapply when she was ready.
“That was 1984,” she said. “I teach at Northwestern now but don’t tell that story very often.”
The final panel discussed the problem of sexual harassment that many female attorneys face in the workplace. Specifically, the five federal judges addressed the case of former Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In late 2017, 15 women, including some of Kozinski’s former law clerks, accused the judge of groping, making sexually explicit comments, and asking them to watch porn with him. He resigned shortly after the allegations became public.
Wood responded by creating a special committee that would examine the procedures for reporting harassment and how those reports are handled.
“The elephant in the room, so to speak, is trying to come up with the most effective measure we can come up with if the problem happens to deal with a law clerk or an extern or an intern vis a vis a judge, because the power relationship is impossible to overstate when it comes to that,” Wood said.
“People are going to be afraid to complain about the judge. They are thinking about job recommendations, thinking about hostile reactions from perhaps other faculty or clerks. Those are very realistic concerns. How one can give effective relief to a person in that position … is something that we are thinking very hard about.”
Pallmeyer said the power dynamic between judges and their subordinates can’t be overstated.
“You really have a situation where the law students and law clerks really have a big disincentive to ever speaking up even when they should,” she said.