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Advancing Women in the Legal Profession

March 05, 2008

Like the United States, for at least the past decade, half of the graduating attorneys from law schools in Argentina and Peru have been women. Unfortunately, challenges for career advancement are shared by female attorneys across the hemisphere.

Recognizing these challenges, the New York City Bar’s Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and Committee on Women in the Profession teamed up to look at how law firms and in-house corporate legal departments can best promote workplace and career path flexibility as well as build the infrastructure to support diversity and inclusion. Ten years after an initial report on women’s advancement in the legal profession, the Committee found that a discrepancy still persisted between the proportion of women entering the profession and their representation at the partner and general counsel levels. In response, in 2006, the Committee issued a report, “Best Practices for the Hiring, Training, Retention, and Advancement of Women Attorneys,” which identified 10 best practices in the areas of senior management commitment, organizational accountability, representative leadership, mentoring, and workplace flexibility.

The recommendations in the Report have received considerable attention both with the New York legal community and outside the United States. In New York City, firms increasingly have begun to promote women attorneys to equity partner even when they are working reduced schedule and without requiring a return to a full-time schedule. In addition, firms have begun to invest in staff and training resources to help drive organizational accountability. Some have added key staff positions, such as director of diversity, to oversee strategy and implementation, and have made partners responsible for monitoring and administering flexible work schedules.  

The Best Practices has been taken on the road and discussed in both Argentina and Peru. With years of experience working throughout the hemisphere, representatives of the Vance Center, including myself, spoke at the first ever conference on the advancement of women attorneys in Latin America. Last year, in Argentina, more than 150 individuals attended this groundbreaking event. Following the conference, the Vance Center held a series of roundtable discussions on the best practices. Attendees at one such discussion formed a network that now meets on a regular basis to promote the advancement of women in the legal profession. Roxana Kahale, a participant and partner at Kahale Abogados, recalled that female lawyers are finally “meeting to discuss issues which are important not only to them, but to the general management of their firm.”

Following the success of the Buenos Aires conference and meetings, we moved on to present the best practices at a similar roundtable held in Lima, Peru. According to a Peruvian participant, Maria del Carmen Tovar Gil, a partner at Estudio Echecopar, the Report was “helpful in identifying the challenges women confront in their practices, and is helpful in noting different strategies to address them.” Like their counterparts in Buenos Aires, the group in Lima was inspired to work toward forming a networking group.

In addition to these two countries, discussions are underway with attorneys in Colombia and Chile, two other countries with large percentages of women graduating from law school. A conference with all participating countries is under discussion for sometime next year. While targeted toward attorneys, many of the Report’s recommendations are equally applicable to professional women in other fields, such as finance and accounting. Hopefully, the work of the Vance Center and the New York City Bar will bring change well beyond the legal community.

Carrie H. Cohen is the former Chair of the New York City Bar’s Committee on Women in the Profession and currently is a Vance Center committee member. Ms. Cohen works as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Criminal Division, and has written this article in her personal capacity. She can be reached at: Carrie.Cohen@usdoj.gov