Elizabeth Peck

Why Do We Need Women’s Bar Associations?

Elizabeth K. Peck is President and Co-Founder of the Finger Lakes Women’s Bar Association and the Director of Career Services at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, NY

 

Why Do We Need Women’s Bar Associations?

I asked myself this very question 18 months ago.   Back in October of 2006, along with 300 other women attorneys in my area, I was invited to breakfast by the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY) to discuss starting a new chapter of the organization.  Honestly, I had no interest then in a “specialty bar.”  What I did have, however, was interest in meeting local attorneys.  Much as I had tried, I hadn’t yet connected with lawyers in my community.  Tapping into this network was important to me because I am a career counselor at a law school in rural New York.  Each year a small number of my students want to stay in our lovely hamlet to practice law after graduation.  Without contacts among local lawyers I couldn’t serve their needs as well as I wanted to.  In small communities, if you want to find a job, you’ve got to know people.

So, I went to breakfast.  I listened to the pitch.  I ate luke-warm eggs.  Nothing.  Then, I just happened to meet the right person at the right time.  On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, I struck up a conversation with a young woman attorney working for a local firm.   “Ah ha!” I thought.  “This is exactly the kind of person I’d like to get to know.”  I quickly realized that helping to start this new organization would connect me to the very people I had been yearning to meet.  So, after 20 minutes of chatting in the October sunshine, we’d decided to start a new bar association.

And, to make a long story short: we did.  Six months after our initial meeting, the Finger Lakes Women’s Bar Association was born.  I am, to this day, continuously surprised at our success.  Our little chapter grew from 25 to 60 members in a year.  (In fact, although we are a women’s bar association, we are open to all and quite proud of our sole male member.)  We have held meetings, social events and continuing legal education courses.  Our members have learned of the sacrifices of the suffragettes, listened to the wisdom of an early NOW president, and come up to speed on the continued struggle for women’s equality in the world of college sports. 

And because our bar association is a chapter of the state-wide women’s bar, we have also witnessed the immense power that women, singly and collectively, can have.  At the state-level, WBASNY (yes, it is an ungainly acronym) gives voice to the needs of women, children and families before the New York State Legislature.  With a paid lobbyist and very committed volunteer members, our organization analyzes legislation pending in Albany and advocates for those bills which will best serve the people of New York, especially those people who are women, children or members of families. 

This is all very nice, but get back to the original question: so, why a women’s bar association?  Don’t co-ed bars do the same things?  Well, yes and no.  Certainly, there’s lots of overlap.  A CLE on corporate law knows no gender.  Many bar associations offer their members chances to network and socialize.  And, all bar associations seek to promote the practice of law for its members and society.

The reason we need a women’s bar association is this: women’s experiences are different than men’s.  We women - gay, straight, young, old, married, single, black, white, or brown –  see the world a bit differently.  We care about slightly different things.  We lead  and communicate and argue and network and compete and collaborate with one another differently.  Even when we are sitting right next to men in the classroom or the courtroom, we may process and perceive matters differently.  Because of these differences, it makes sense, then, for women to come together professionally to create an organization that meets these different needs. 

I didn’t come to this determination lightly.  In fact, it was only after we decided to start this organization that I really understood why my community, and all communities, need these types of bar associations.  Perhaps one of the most powerful images for me is the first state-wide WBASNY meeting I attended.   At these meetings, representatives from all 18 chapters convene for a day-long meeting to discuss, among other things, which pending state bills the organization will support.

Imagine, if you will, a room filled entirely with women lawyers.  Maybe 100 of them.  Imagine vigorous, contentious, downright passionate discussion of a proposed change to New York State divorce law.  Listen to this for, say, an hour or two.  Imagine that there is no resolution to the debate, merely an agreement to disagree. Finally, imagine that after the discussion ends these women move on to calmly discuss other pending issues.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure a co-ed meeting would go exactly this way.

Perhaps a women’s bar has something different to offer you, as a person, as a lawyer and as a woman.  And, if it doesn’t, that’s OK too.  Just because we share the same biology doesn’t mean we have to share the same opinions. 

1 Comments

Karen H

Ms. Peck,
  Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this!  I couldn't agree more.  Many of the same reasons why you say we women need women's bar associations are the same reasons why many of us believe that we need Ms. JD and further why Ms. JD just helped to law the National Women Law Students Organization.  I really appreciate you sharing this story with us!
 

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