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Leadership diversity, equal pay and discrimination: Eight women weigh in on how far the legal profession has (and hasn’t) come

Published in 2018 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

By Taylor Kuether on November 13, 2018


The statistic is noted by nearly every lawyer interviewed here: Women make up 50 percent of law school graduates. But their representation in firm leadership remains far below parity. Though they have made enormous strides over the decades, without a doubt, challenges remain for women in the legal industry. We talked about these issues with eight Milwaukee-area women on the front lines—from some who blazed trails in the 1970s to others making noise at the early stages of their careers.  



Jessica M. Butler, ’09 graduate of University of Wisconsin Law School, personal injury: plaintiff at Gruber Law Offices: Most of my role models came from my family. I came from really strong matriarchs on both sides.


Shannon Brusda Braun, ’09 graduate of University of Wisconsin Law School, estate planning & probate at Godfrey & Kahn: When my mom graduated from high school, the expectation was that she should work, not go to college. While I was growing up, my mom often told me that one of her greatest hopes was for me to go to college and find a career I loved. I took her advice to heart, and I am thankful that women like my mom paved the way for women like me to have more opportunities than ever before. 


Renee Ruffin Nawrocki, ’11 graduate of Marquette University Law School, family law at Petrie + Pettit: My sister is a municipal judge and a mom of three kids. For over a decade, she’s been there giving me guidance on professional and personal matters, helping me with attorney best practices and how to manage a healthy work-life balance.



Christy A. Brooks, ’77 graduate of University of Wisconsin Law School, family law at von Briesen & Roper: There weren’t any. [Laughs.] There were very few women practicing law; there were no women leading firms and no women judges when I started, so all of the work that I did really came attached with men as both leaders and mentors. 


Diane S. Diel, ’76 graduate of University of Wisconsin Law School, solo attorney in family law: There were not many women judges and, if I happened to get an interview with a firm with a woman, I was literally told, “We already have our woman.”


Lori Gendelman, ’80 graduate of American University Washington College of Law, medical malpractice defense at Otjen, Gendelman, Zitzer, Johnson & Weir: My focus was on who were the best lawyers and who were the best people. I just went for the quality of the person rather than the gender. 


Butler (’09): I did pay attention to it: When I’d get there and notice other women, or especially minorities, that would make me feel much more comfortable. There’s no question. But it wasn’t something that I sought out and looked for, because I knew when I got into the field that this was a white, male-dominated field, so I knew female and minority mentorship was not something I was going to necessarily find. 



Nawrocki (’11): I think it’s instrumental. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with bright, talented, gracious females in my career who are willing to act as mentors to me in my practice area. It’s key to being successful in thoroughly and effectively representing clients.


Butler (’09): It’s very important if you can find it, but it’s difficult to find. There are so few partners at law firms who are women or minorities and a lot of the people who might want to mentor might not be in decision-making positions. It’s just difficult to find somebody who has the time. 


Braun (’09): I believe mentorship is of utmost importance in terms of career development and progression. Mentorship can come in a variety of forms, whether through a formal mentorship program or through informal relationships with colleagues or other legal professionals outside of the workplace. 


Brooks (’77): In the business world, mentorship as opposed to coaching is a changing area. Mentoring is this long-term relationship where you’ve got somebody to help you react to tough situations and guide you through business to deal with issues and problems. But equally as important is coaching, which I think more people can ask for and get a benefit from. It’s not being reactive but being proactive about your goals [and] how you are moving forward on them. That’s a very different process than finding a mentor. So I think both of those paired together are very important, whether it’s a man or a woman. 


Diel (’76): Mentorship is very important but was not something I had a tremendous opportunity to receive. It’s something I try to give. For my own legal profession, mentorship didn’t make much difference, but in terms of what organizational work I’ve done, I’ve been past president of both the Association of Women Lawyers and the State Bar of Wisconsin, and I thought that what I could do for other women in law was to be visible. Just be visible and competent. 



Butler (’09): I’ve been facing discrimination my entire life—if not for my gender, then for my race. It’s a normal thing you have to deal with as a mixed-race woman.


Barbara L. Burbach, ’75 graduate of University of Wisconsin Law School, family law at Burbach & Stansbury: One of the interviews I had was with a well-known insurance company and the two lawyers that interviewed me were younger, junior lawyers. They wanted to hire me and they flat-out told me that they would love to hire me but one of the senior lawyers said they “weren’t ready for a woman lawyer yet.”


Diel (’76): One lawyer told me that I couldn’t possibly successfully do mortgage foreclosure work because I was undoubtedly, based on my gender, far too sympathetic to the people who were being [foreclosed upon]. I had one man say to me, “What’s a young thing like you doing wanting to be a lawyer?” That man said those words to many of the women in my class.


Brooks (’77): I remember at one interview they said, “Yeah, we want to hire a litigator and, by the way, could you help us really clean up our filing system?” I found that was not atypical, except at my firm, where they were progressive about giving as much responsibility and opportunity as possible to their first woman attorney. 


Diel (’76): I had a divorce case and had written many letters and made many phone calls to the other lawyer on the case. Ultimately, we had a conference on the case at the courthouse. When the judge asked why it wasn’t settled, I said, “This lawyer has never returned my calls or responded to my letters.” The man said, “Well, your name wasn’t on the letterhead and who would even begin to believe that you were a lawyer in that law firm?” It was because I was a new lawyer and they hadn’t printed any letterhead with my name on it!


Butler (’09): I can’t count how many times I’m called, on a regular basis, “sweetie” or “honey” by colleagues. You would never hear [men] call each other that. I was in a deposition once and a witness just literally told me all the nasty things, off the record, that he would do to me if I was his attorney. And the other guys were just sitting there, half shocked and half laughing it off. I have no problem standing up for myself but, in this situation, I thought it was more professional to ignore the comments than encourage his behavior. It’s unfortunate that you even have to choose between standing up for yourself or de-escalating the situation. 



Burbach (’75): When I graduated, 30 percent of us were women, and our contemporaries and the men in my law school class were more progressive. They were a product of the 1960s, too. They had seen the civil rights movement, they had seen what was going on in Vietnam [and] they tended to be a lot more progressive, so it wasn’t that I was being discriminated against by my contemporaries. It was by those who had been out in the practice of law, who perceived women as being unable to do the job. 


Diel (’76): There were maybe 100 women from my law school class scattered around the state of Wisconsin and around the country. I became involved early on with the Milwaukee Association of Women Lawyers, which really tried to do positive role modeling and say, “Here we are; don’t take us for granted.” At the time, there were no places to go to complain. We had to try to find some way to simply make a statement that we were there, we were competent and we were a force to be reckoned with. 


Brooks (’77): Words matter. I continue to hear “girl” a lot. It’s important to me to say words that mean what you think, so it ranges from the small things like reminding people it’s “women,” not “girls,” to much tougher things. I think the #MeToo movement has been great. It’s no different in the legal or business world; those things still happen a lot, and it’s important to call it out. 



Butler (’09): It’s a huge problem. We talk about mentorship and ushering people into positions of power. It’s really hard to do that when there are no people of color or no women in those positions. Whenever you’re sitting at a table, be it on a board, the legislature or even at the Supreme Court, when you’re making laws and decisions that will affect the lives of everyone in the state or community, you need diversity sitting at that table or you’re not getting their perspective. You don’t even know how your decisions may affect other people or communities because you’re unwilling to listen to them.


Braun (’09): Although there has been progress, there is certainly room for improvement. I think it is important that firms and other legal institutions continue to implement policies that focus on retaining quality attorneys and improving diversity at all levels. I believe that one of the most effective ways to do this is through training and mentorship. 


Leslie Gutierrez, ’11 graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, business litigator at Husch Blackwell: I think all law firms are still struggling with diversity at all levels and certainly at the leadership level. Part of that issue is generational. If you look at the older generation of lawyers, it is mostly white men because they formed the majority of their law school classes and then formed the majority of lawyers going into private practice. There is not a large enough pool of women to choose from to begin with, but that is changing and so now firms should be—and some are—taking proactive steps to ensure that there are more female candidates being considered for leadership roles.



Brooks (’77): [In the 1980s] there was a group of women who had been in the legal, business and academic fields who got together to think about getting more women into leadership positions. One of the things we did was meet with then-Governor Tony Earl. There was a vacancy coming up for judicial appointment so we said, “Come meet us at the courthouse. Look around. There are no women here. When you appoint the next judge, will you appoint a woman?” And they did better than that, they appointed the first two women: Patricia Curley and Leah Lampone. It was fabulous. We said give us one and they gave us two. When there are more women at the table, there’s less discrimination.


Gutierrez (’11): I think firms are really not just emphasizing diversity more but taking action. How can we retain diverse attorneys? How can we attract diverse attorneys? It’s been great to see a lot more action, a lot less talking. Initiatives like the Mansfield Rule, which requires that at least 30 percent of candidate pools for selected job titles be comprised of female and/or minority professionals and that firms must “affirmatively consider” their candidacies, should help.


Gendelman (’80): My perception is that men’s sensitivity to the fact that women lawyers bring a lot to the table has increased. My perception is that most lawyers would not say, “Oh my god, my co-defense counsel is a woman;” they’d say, “Oh my god, my co-defense counsel is a good or bad lawyer.”



Burbach (’75): The interesting thing is this: 50 percent of graduating lawyers are women, but less than 25 percent of women are equity shareholders. One would think that maybe 50 percent of equity shareholders at firms should be women, but that’s not the case; it’s a lot less. I don’t know if it’s the glass ceiling, that there are impediments to women as equity shareholders or if it’s self-selecting.


Gutierrez (’11): What hasn’t changed is that at the top level it’s mostly men. Even though half of first-year attorneys are women, the numbers at the top are still predominantly male and not diverse in any way.


Nawrocki (’11): Research and studies have shown that wages and earnings and hours and expectations are, in fact, different, and there’s a huge gap. My hope is that the gap will close and it’ll be equal.  


Diel (’76): The glass ceiling is still there and still huge, and [for] anyone who has the audacity to take off time to have a baby or raise a baby, it’s really challenging to get back on the partnership ladder.


Butler (’09): Just because there are more women and minority attorneys doesn’t mean we’re seeing equality in the positions of power. You’re not seeing partnerships.



Brooks (’77): Every day we’re pretty busy thinking about our work, our business, our clients, our families. Each day or week or month, taking a step forward to offer to help someone else, man or woman, is so important—particularly in an industry where you’re really focused on yourself all the time just for survival. You don’t even have to call it mentoring; just spending the hour to take someone to lunch is so important. 


Gutierrez (’11): I think the tone that law firms set at the top is important. Young female associates need to know that the full range of career opportunities is available to them, including at the leadership level. They need to see leaders who aren’t afraid to say, “We have a problem with unconscious bias. We’re going to implement training. These comments that male attorneys make in passing are not acceptable.” I think seeing the leadership acknowledge the issues and address them will go a long way and show the younger generation that there is a place for them and they can rise through the ranks. 


Braun (’09): Retention of mid-level and upper-level female attorneys continues to be a challenge across the legal field. I believe that policies need to be implemented to allow for greater flexibility and to support attorneys at all stages of their careers. I feel fortunate to be a member of my firm’s policy and practices committee, which, since its inception in 2010, has drafted and recommended a number of progressive policies that have since been implemented by our firm. Of note, our parental leave policy now includes a “ramp up, ramp down” component that provides billable hour credit to attorneys about to go on leave or returning to work from a leave. Our telecommuting policy has also been revised to address flexible work schedules which, quite frankly, are more workable as technology becomes more sophisticated. 



Gutierrez (’11): As someone who grew up with plenty of opportunities and a very supportive family, and who’s never encountered any overt discrimination, I still struggle with the constant question of “Am I good enough?” I think a lot of female attorneys are constantly feeling like they need to do more and we don’t ever feel like we’ve made it. We’re constantly striving to do better and to do more.


Brooks (’77): I still haven’t made it. I still feel that way, and I don’t think I’ll ever change that. A lot of lawyers feel that way; every day we’re faced with something new. 


Diel (’76): In the legal profession, if you think you’ve made it, you’re in danger of becoming incompetent and irrelevant because you have to prove yourself every day [and] in every matter you handle. Along the way, I’ve figured out why they call it “practicing law,” because you’re never done learning. 



Gendelman (’80): Looking for a mentor is a great idea, and I don’t believe you need to look for a female mentor. Just look for the best lawyer. 


Braun (’09): Before applying to law school, I would highly recommend talking with attorneys in different practice areas to get a sense of various career paths. Once you are in law school, work hard, seek opportunities and do not be afraid to try something new.


Burbach (’75): For women with families, that’s part of your life, but not all of it. You practice law for 40, 50 years, so there’s a good part of that time where you don’t have the same kind of responsibilities. It’s important for women to decide what they want, what they’re willing to do to get it, be realistic about their needs and wants, and then to go for it. 

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