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Bay Area BusinessWoman
Long live the Queen! Women’s bar association flourishes after 87 years
—By Julia Cooper
When it came time for college, Anne Gyemant Paris hesitated to pursue the family business. Eager to strike her own path, she had aspirations of blazing a trail of change through society. She didn’t want to be pressured into following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother.
But when your mother is Superior Court Judge Ina Levin Gyemant, and your grandmother is Mildred Woloski Levin, a pioneer instrumental in legislation for rape victim’s rights, going to law school doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. With a family tradition of trail-blazing, it seems Paris was destined to uphold that legacy. And today she dedicates her work life to battling domestic violence.
“The law was something they both used to try to make the world a better place,” says Paris of her mother and grandmother. She went on to graduate from her mother’s alma mater, Hastings College of the Law, passing the California Bar Exam in 1998.
Paris’ crusading family history may be unique, but it’s not only blood that’s tying together generations of women lawyers in the Bay Area.
The Queen’s Bench Bar Association, the oldest group of its kind in the West, boasts a comparable legacy of successful women who have racked up an impressive list of accomplishments. Throughout its history, these female attorneys have worked on everything from legislative reforms for causes like reproductive rights, to offsetting a deficiency of female judges in the mid-‘70s, and eradicating gender discrimination both in and out of the courtroom.
Founded in 1921 on the heels of women’s suffrage, Queen’s Bench formed after male lawyers prevented a group of women lawyers from joining the local bar association. Undaunted, the women launched their own organization and discovered that pooling resources was the best way to further their individual professional interests and also helped reshape the landscape for females in the law profession.
The Queen’s Bench network of attorneys, judges and law students, now 300 strong, will celebrate its Annual Judges Dinner on May 29, featuring keynote speaker Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).
Thanks to those early trailblazers, conditions have improved for women in the industry: According to a 2007 study by the American Bar Association, women account for 30 percent of today’s lawyers — a sharp increase from only 3 percent in 1951.
Previous generations of Queen’s Bench leaders echo these strides, especially when recalling the sexism characterizing the past. Ruth Rymer, who served as president in 1976, was one of only five women in a graduating class of 200 in 1970. “There was a lot of hostility to us — ranging from ‘here’s the lovely lady lawyer’ to outright hostility,” Rymer says.
Repercussions of the women’s movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin), and more effective birth control methods helped more women break through the courtroom’s glass ceiling, Rymer says.
Mary Hough, Queen’s Bench president in 1994, says females were “patronized and trivialized” when she started practicing more than 25 years ago. Though she acknowledges a dramatically different climate today, she also says bouts of sexism still crop up every so often, to her surprise. “I’m used to thinking that it’s an issue we’ve outgrown,” she says, “and then every once in awhile, I come across a younger male lawyer who has trouble dealing with women lawyers.”
Underrepresentation in judicial appointments and partnerships — despite accounting for nearly half of law graduates today — and a wage gap where women earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts, according to 2006 Bureau of Labor statistics, still present barriers for female attorneys.
Perhaps even more challenging, though, are the grueling work hours of an attorney. This is particularly true at large firms with intensive hourly billing requirements, says Kelly Robbins, current Queen’s Bench president. “I think it’s harder for women because we are also trying to manage the household, and plan the vacation, and get the plumber — managing the juggling that goes on in everyone’s life,” she says.
But tackling work-life balance becomes less of a struggle with a pipeline of support, and that’s where Queen’s Bench comes in. Members can take advantage of myriad committees that sponsor programs to assist in business development and continuing education, among other professional goals. They also get involved in community service, including making regular visits with incarcerated girls at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall, and offer other leadership opportunities that foster members’ personal development.Yet the greatest benefit of the non-profit, volunteer association may be the group’s camaraderie and effort to nurture newcomers. Veterans take on mentor roles and offer guidance, from case and career advice to rainmaking tips and how to work a room.
Paris, now a Queen’s Bench director — again succeeding both her mother Gyemant, president in 1979, and grandmother Levin, president in 1959 — says other members provide an invaluable resource. “As a family law lawyer, I could just go into the Queen’s Bench directory and ask any a question for advice on cases,” she says. And, as Robbins adds, not all calls are business. “There’s a network of past presidents that I call, not just about Queen’s Bench, but about different things,” Robbins says.
With these women sharing their knowledge and inspiration, it’s easy to see why Queen’s Bench thrives after nearly a century. “Here we are in our 87th year and thinking about our 100-year anniversary,” Robbins says.
At an April 14 new members induction ceremony, Robbins expressed her feelings to Queen’s Bench members that true professional and social progress requires a united coalition: “By working together, we accomplish more than any one of us could alone.”
Julia Cooper is a Bay Area freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.