Intensifying Pressure for Parity in the Legal Sphere
Thought leaders, aspiring lawyers reflect on gender equality issues

by Ashley Hopko

Women in the legal industry face unique challenges compared to their male colleagues. After 20 years of efforts to encourage equality within the workplace, experts still say there’s work to do, and key players are stepping up to tackle these challenges with fresh initiatives.

Statistics from the American Bar Association show 50 percent of law school graduates are women. By age 50, though, the number of women attorneys at law firms drops to 27 percent. And according to studies on pay disparity, a white woman will make 80 cents to the dollar their male counterpart will while women of color will make 55 cents. Women at law firms also make up less than 20 percent of equity partners. This begs the question: Why is there such a disparity between male and female attorneys?

Hilarie Bass, an international attorney, pledged herself to the national advancement of women’s rights and equality in the legal profession across the U.S. As someone who has served in the industry for over 30 years, she’s seen the effects of gender discrimination firsthand and works closely with professors and faculty at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

She previously served as president of Greenberg Traurig and from 2017 to 2018 served as president of the American Bar Association, where she spear- headed the “Why Women Leave” study. The study focuses on various power dynamics in the workplace and why firms struggle to retain diverse talent. It aimed to research what social, political and economic factors play a role in pushing female and diverse attorneys out. The ABA also conducted a study on the impacts on women of color in the industry.

The findings are expected to be released by the end of April.

After her presidential term at the ABA ended in late 2018, Bass decided to take her career in a different direction while drafts of the research from the “Why Women Leave” project are synthesized.

“I personally made the decision at the end of my term not to go back to my position at Greenberg Traurig and instead spend 100 percent of my time on the issue of women achieving parity, not just in law, but across corporate America,” Bass said. “So I created the Bass Institute on Diversity and Inclusion.”

As a new and independent organization, the Bass Institute tackles dis- parity of women in positions of power. Statistics show the wage gap is consistent for women across the country, regardless of profession. A key focus for the institute is not only to find hard-hitting examples of disparity but to back up claims with solid and indisputable statistical evidence.

Karen Hester, CEO for the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, echoes many of Bass’ concerns but also keeps a positive outlook on the future of diversity in the workplace.

“It’s amazing the work people and organizations are doing right here in Denver. We hear a lot in society about the discourse that comes because of misunderstandings or people not taking into account that differences are not necessarily a bad thing,” said Hester.

Hester said that diversity helps make a legal team more creative, and diversity programs are important because “the numbers [of women and minority groups in law] are not representative of what our society looks like.”

The Sturm College of Law works alongside CLI and the ABA to build their curriculum and community.

Catherine Smith, the associate dean of institutional diversity and inclusiveness at DU Law, said the school is trying to lead the pack when it comes to dedication toward innovation and diversity. She said she’s just trying to level the playing field. For the past three summers, DU Law offered a seminar that focuses on women and the legal workforce.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the March 11, 2019 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.