WLA Conference Focused on Breaking Down Barriers

BY STACYLYN DEWEY

(Left to Right) Sandra Froman, Judge Susan Oki Mollway, and Professor Sarah Buel, three of the four panelists for “Where We Are Now

While a snowstorm fell on Boston, last Friday, the Harvard Law School Women’s Law Association held its Second Annual HLS Alumnae Conference. The February 22 event, sponsored by the law firm Kirkland and Ellis, honored female trailblazers in the law while inspiring current HLS students to continue fighting against current, more covert, discrimination of women in the legal field. The three panels of HLS alumnae described the past, present, and hopeful future experiences of alumnae both at and after Harvard. Professor Susan Estrich ’77 motivated current students to be more confident about promoting themselves and their peers in pursuing their future career goals throughout her keynote address.

The morning panel included Justice Raya Dreben ’54, one of the first two female justices appointed to the Appeals Court of Massachusetts. Justice Dreben described her feelings of embarrassment at the beginning of her career when her firm refused to put her name on the letterhead, and she exuded joy at finally being treated as an equal on the Appeals Court.

Before becoming a litigation partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Kirkland and Ellis, Karen Walker ’87, another panelist, was often frustrated by reviews that she was “too aggressive.” She inspired students to preserve their own personalities in the face of empty criticism based on gender stereotypes. The final panelist, former Congresswoman from Colorado and current president of the Association of American Publishers Pat Schroeder ’64, invigorated discussion of the work-family conflict by repeating her famous quote that she could be both a Congresswoman and mother because “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.” She motivated women to explore the extent of their economic power to bring about societal change.

The MIT Workplace Center study of law firms launched the second panel’s discussion of the current state of women in the legal profession. Mona Harrington ’60, the Program Director of the MIT Workplace Center, described the study’s findings that women are equally represented at the associated level but make up a disproportionately low number of partners and that most women who leave law firms do not leave the workforce altogether.

The other three panelists each demonstrated their unwavering pursuit of their individual passions. Judge Susan Oki Mollway ’81 advised students to do what they love without fear of how that will affect their future plans, stating that if she had to do it all over again knowing the trouble that her civil rights work caused in her appointment process, she wouldn’t change a thing. Sandra Froman ’74, the former president of the National Rifle Association, emphasized the priceless rewards of advocating for a cause that you care about. Sarah Buel ’90 shared her journey from welfare to HLS, resisting advice to stray from her passionate study of domestic violence.

In discussing ideas for the future, the final panel addressed current problems of covert discrimination. Wendy Bloom ’92, a partner at Kirkland and Ellis in Chicago, discussed new programs within the firm that address the needs of parents and women.

Even with the addition of programs like these, however, the panel emphasized the importance of seeking out personal mentors. Nicole Desario ’03, an attorney at the Department of Justice, described how relating to male mentors can be difficult using her own example of a boss who simply felt more comfortable around other male employees. Karen Russell ’87, an attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine, promoted the exploration of different career avenues, never feeling locked into a job that is unsatisfactory. With the idea of exploration in mind, Sarah Boonin ’04 reminded students not to disregard undervalued careers in legal services, jobs predominately held by women.

Professor Estrich tied a lot of the themes of the conference together with her keynote address. She emphasized the obligation that women have to help and promote each other in our career and life pursuits, noting the importance of mentoring. In addition to supporting each other, women should also be more active in their own self-promotion. Professor Estrich described her time causing trouble at HLS as the most fun she has had, which no one could deny after hearing her tragically hilarious accounts of graffiti and women’s group “meetings.” Her enthusiasm for the continued fight against gender discrimination, expressed through an emphasis on “sisterhood,” led one student to state that she felt the passion of our mother’s generation lighting up the room. Professor Estrich also proclaimed that she would run the campaigns for either Stanford Professor Kathleen Sullivan or our own Dean Elena Kagan to be the next Supreme Court Justice.

This year’s successful conference was organized by co-chairs April Bernardo, Sarah Hargrove, and Meagan Rasch-Chabot. Despite the cold weather, bonds between generations of women were warmed and their joint passion against gender discrimination was inflamed.

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