Women step up in legal profession
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 association’s foundation.