Women in Law: Breaking Through the Bias Against Women
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In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating three trailblazing women in the legal profession. These women—Gloria Allred, Constance Baker Motley, and Faiza Saeed—have broken barriers for female lawyers and have made a lasting impact on the legal profession. Each of these influential women shattered glass ceilings in different fields of law.
Gloria Allred: A Lawyer for Women’s Rights
Gloria Allred has spent her legal career advocating for women’s rights. Throughout her career, she has often taken on high-profile and controversial cases. Time Magazine described her as “one of the nation’s most effective advocates of family rights and feminist causes.”
Allred has been a tireless advocate for victims, especially women victims. She has been an attorney in defining cases involving O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Donald Trump, Scott Peterson, and Robert Blake. Allred also provided counsel in some of the earliest sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
She is a founding partner of Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, a leading employment law firm. The firm has handled many cases on gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and victim’s rights. During the past 40-plus years, the firm has won many high-profile cases involving women that have set future precedent.
For instance, Allred represented Amber Frey. Frey was a key witness in the murder case against Scott Peterson. Peterson was having an affair with Amber Frey at the time Peterson murdered Laci, his pregnant wife. Frey testified she was unaware that Scott Peterson was married when she began dating him. The case attracted widespread media attention and became a national sensation in 2004. A jury eventually convicted Peterson of first-degree murder of Laci and their unborn child.
The National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Allred in recognition of her advocacy. Allred’s daughter Lisa Bloom has followed in her mother’s footsteps and has made notable contributions as a lawyer in gender discrimination cases.
Constance Baker Motley: A Lawyer for Civil Rights
Constance Baker Motley established her reputation as a key lawyer in the civil rights movement. Born in Connecticut in a family of 12 children, Motley worked her way through Columbia Law School. She also served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of the very few clerkships held by African American women in the Court’s history.
This background laid the foundation for her defining role in the civil rights movement. In 1950, she drafted the initial complaint in the pivotal case Brown v. Board of Education. She later became the first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.
Motley was also a successful politician. New Yorkers elected her to the state Senate in 1964. In her elected role, she continued her advocacy for civil rights causes. In addition to her long list of achievements, in 1966 she also became the first the few African American women to serve as a federal judge.
As a woman of color, Motley faced many instances of bias throughout her legal career. Despite the obstacles, Motley stayed focused on the bigger picture and managed to rise above the bias.
Motley received numerous honors for her work as a leading female lawyer. In 2015, a short documentary entitled “The Trials of Constance Baker Motley” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Vice President Kamala Harris has also cited Motley as a role model in her own career.
Faiza J. Saeed: Leader Among Few Women-Led Firms
Faiza J. Saeed’s appointment to lead the New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP was groundbreaking news. Cravath is one of the most prestigious law firms in the world but did not have a woman preside over the firm’s leadership until 2016. Ms. Saeed’s historic appointment as a women of color attracted significant media attention. Few women lead law firms with over 500 attorneys.
Although law firms have worked to implement diversity initiatives and increase the representation of women in the talent pipeline, women still lag in representation at the equity partner level. The higher up the corporate ladder one looks, the fewer women one will find.
A mergers & acquisitions lawyer by training, Ms. Saeed has been vastly outnumbered by men throughout her career. Women are especially underrepresented in the mergers and acquisitions field.
Data from the top ten law firms in the United States reveals just how few women serve as lead counsel on M&A deals. Of the 100 largest M&A deals from 2014 to 2020, women served as lead partners on around 10% of those deals. At Davis Polk, a major New York law firm, not a single woman served as lead counsel on a major M&A deal for six consecutive years from 2014 to 2019.
As emphasized in an article published by The American Lawyer, “If having a strong female mentor in a position of authority, such as the lead on a deal and the owner of a client relationship, is paramount to facilitating other women into that position, you first need to have enough women in those prominent roles. There are not.”
Saeed, who is of Pakistani descent, is accustomed to navigating the male-dominated corporate world. Recounting her own experience, Ms. Saeed notes that she has adapted to working in predominantly male fields. “I was a molecular biology major in college and then I chose to be an M&A adviser on Wall Street, so career-wise I’ve been accustomed to being one of a few women in those settings.”