Women step up in le­gal pro­fes­sion

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Paul Brinkmann Staff Writer

Lo­cal lawyers are tak­ing steps to raise the pro­file of women in the court­room and the board­room.

Women have taken the helm at four of Or­ange County’s top le­gal or­ga­ni­za­tions, a sign of grow­ing in­flu­ence even as chal­lenges re­main for women in the le­gal pro­fes­sion.

“We’re look­ing for a very di­verse bar,” said Liz McCaus­land, pres­i­dent of the Or­ange County Bar As­so­ci­a­tion for 2017. “We def­i­nitely have a lot of women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions, and we’re try­ing to el­e­vate women.”

It’s not a co­in­ci­dence that 2017 is the year the four have risen. Just last year, The Florida Bar put out a sur­vey that showed gen­der bias is a sys­temic prob­lem in the le­gal pro­fes­sion.

Scores of the state’s young fe-

male at­tor­neys re­counted ex­pe­ri­ences of gen­der bias in the sur­vey, from in­sen­si­tive off­hand com­ments made by col­leagues to sex­ual dis­crim­i­na­tion and ha­rass­ment. Of 465 women sur­veyed, 43 per­cent re­ported fac­ing gen­der bias dur­ing their ca­reers and shared anec­do­tal tales about the prob­lem. An­other key find­ing was that 21 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they felt they were not be­ing paid com­men­su­rate with male coun­ter­parts.

McCaus­land said the Or­ange County Bar As­so­ci­a­tion ad­justed its mis­sion state­ment, partly in re­sponse to the sur­vey, to say the or­ga­ni­za­tion is seek­ing a di­verse group of at­tor­neys. It also el­e­vated sev­eral women to lead­er­ship po­si­tions in re­sponse.

Be­sides McCaus­land, three sub­sidiaries of the county bar are led by women: Melody Lynch, pres­i­dent of the Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety; Ke­shara Cowans, pres­i­dent of the Young Lawyers Section; and Ani Ro­driguez-New­bern, pres­i­dent of the as­so­ci­a­tion’s foun­da­tion. They think it is the first time women have led all four groups.

Many U.S. pres­i­dents and mem­bers of Congress have been ei­ther lawyers or mil­i­tary lead­ers. Di­ver­sity among lawyers also en­sures more di­verse view­points in the court­room and the jus­tice sys­tem, said Mayanne Downs, Or­lando’s city at­tor­ney, who leads the Gray Robin­son law firm and is a for­mer pres­i­dent of The Florida Bar.

“Any­time a women steps for­ward and leads, the world be­comes more egal­i­tar­ian,” Downs said. “I’m very pleased to see women in lead­er­ship roles within the fed­eral, state and lo­cal bar as­so­ci­a­tions, and in law firms. But I would like to see more progress in real power and au­thor­ity in the business side of law.”

Women now rep­re­sent 19 per­cent of eq­uity part­ners in U.S. law firms sur­veyed an­nu­ally by the National As­so­ci­a­tion of Women Lawyers, a record high.

The four new lead­ers of the bar’s or­ga­ni­za­tions have sto­ries about how they were in­spired to be­come an at­tor­ney and who in­spired them. All said they share a com­mon bond that drove them to vol­un­teer — a com­mit­ment to com­mu­nity ser­vice.

Ro­driguez-New­bern started out in broad­cast com­mu­ni­ca­tions. She now works in her mother’s law firm and of­ten rep­re­sents the Florida Depart­ment of Rev­enue in child-sup­port en­force­ment mat­ters.

“My par­ents taught us that com­mu­nity ser­vice is im­por­tant, and we ab­sorbed that mes­sage,” she said.

Ro­driguez-New­bern said set­ting an ex­am­ple as a His­panic woman is im­por­tant. Her mother was born in Ar­gentina and her fa­ther, in Cuba. She is also pres­i­dent-elect of the His­panic Bar As­so­ci­a­tion of Cen­tral Florida.

Ro­driguez-New­bern said ex­am­ples are im­por­tant, es­pe­cially to mi­nori­ties.

“I want young women to know, if you look like me, you can also do what I do and con­tinue this legacy. Be­cause if they don’t, this is all for noth­ing,” she said.

Lynch also re­calls a change of course be­fore pur­su­ing a le­gal ca­reer — af­ter be­ing en­cour­aged by a male pro­fes­sor in col­lege. At the time, she had been study­ing bal­let.

Set­ting an ex­am­ple for her daugh­ter is part of what in­spires her, Lynch said.

“At the top of the pro­fes­sion, women are still a mi­nor­ity,” said Lynch, who be­came a share­holder at Or­lan­dobased Lown­des, Dros­dick, Doster, Kan­tor & Reed in 2016. “As the mother of a young daugh­ter, it’s cer­tainly im­por­tant for me to let her see women like this group, and that they can do any­thing.”

Cowans works in lawyer reg­u­la­tion for The Florida Bar, af­ter hav­ing served as a pub­lic de­fender.

“I’m very pas­sion­ate about young peo­ple and es­pe­cially dis­ad­van­taged youth,” she said.

She loves speak­ing at schools, es­pe­cially in mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties. Cowans, who is black, said she is proud to be part of the bar as­so­ci­a­tion at a time when it is em­pha­siz­ing ser­vice and di­ver­sity.

McCaus­land started out want­ing to work for the FBI.

She jokes about her first en­counter with the Bu­reau, when a man said re­cruits should be OK with phys­i­cal con­fronta­tion, such as tak­ing a "sharp jar to the head.” Af­ter that, she switched ca­reers.

“When I was a young lawyer, peo­ple helped me. And they still do. I try to re­mem­ber that and help oth­ers,” McCaus­land said.


Women lead­ers in the Or­ange County Bar As­so­ci­a­tion: from left, Melody Lynch, pres­i­dent of Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety; Ke­shara Cowans, pres­i­dent of Young Lawyers Section; Liz McCaus­land, pres­i­dent of the as­so­ci­a­tion; and Ani Ro­driguez-New­bern, pres­i­dent of the...

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