The Esther Rothstein Award Speech to WBA

Many of you have asked for a copy of my remarks to the WBA on the occasion of the Rise Up Reach Back luncheon. Roughly, here they are:

I am both humbled and very pleased to receive this award from the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois. I am particularly honored to be in the company of Senator Dawn Clark Netsch. I think Dawn was on the very first legal board I was on. I wasn’t good at networking then, but I admired from afar her spunk, her determination, and her grace. I was asked today to reflect on my personal journey in the law and the importance of women helping each other. I was asked to limit myself to ten minutes, which is good, because my first attempt at reflection on my career as a woman lawyer in this city resulted in a 450 page manuscript. My literary agent at the time gently suggested that I cut 150 pages, and the result is my gift to you, my first novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan. I offer it to you because I believe it is important to know our social history as women lawyers, as a measure of where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. It would be your gift to me if you were to read it, like it and pass it on. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is NOT my personal story. It is FICTION, but it is grounded in my experience of joining a large institutional law firm in 1976, where there were only 2 women partners. They were enough older than the 5 of us women who joined the firm that year that we missed the opportunity to watch them and see how they did it. Of necessity, then, we learned from and leaned on each other. I made life-long friends in those early years who are here today—Christine Albright and Deborah Bornstein—and have been very grateful over the years for their guidance and support. We helped each other with the big questions: What to wear, how to ask a woman secretary to type for you, how not to be mistaken for a secretary for a paralegal when we were the only woman in the conference room, how to avoid being asked to get the coffee. As a group, we decided rather informally which battles to fight. If we had to go in the side doors at the Union League Club in order to go to the Firm’s parties, well, as least we were invited. And THAT was considered progress! It took a couple of years for the biggest issues to confront us, the issue of maternity leave and part-time work, and the first of our number to confront that issue left the firm when it was not yet ready to be flexible. She eventually became a partner and member of the executive committee at another firm, and a national leader in her field. Eventually the rest of us found husbands, which truthfully was my bigger concern at the time—I was 31. Because we were afraid not to, most of us made partner in due course, either at Sidley or elsewhere, and I think that at that point, we were deceived into thinking that perhaps law firms were meritocracies after all. The profession was very different then, still more of a profession rather than a big business, but by the time we were nearing 40, I think we became, as a group, painfully aware of the glass ceiling. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is about a woman who becomes partner and becomes ambitious for advancement within her own law firm, a position from which she thinks she may be of use to the women who follow her. She comes to understand that the playing field is not level, and that what she’s looking for has perhaps more to do with her own ego than with other women. The book follows Kathleen Hannigan’s career through about 1990, but it was a little disheartening for me to hear from a young associate when it came out in 2007 that she could “totally relate.” When writing the book, about ten years ago, I became rather depressed—I wasn’t on the Management Committee and I wasn’t a top rainmaker at my firm; in fact I kept bumping into my mentor and partner, Steve Durchslag, 10 years my senior, and that felt like a failure, not just personal, but also political. As a summer associate at a LaSalle Street Firm in 1974, a name partner had said to me that in his opinion women would never litigate in this city. And although I didn’t become a litigator, I felt, like many of us felt, compelled to prove him wrong. We HAD to Succeed. It could easily feel like failure today: –that only 15% of equity partners are women –that 40% of law firms have only 1 woman partner on their managing committee –that 80% of law firms have at most 2 women partners on their managing committee –that almost half of all firms report NO women partners in their top 10 rainmakers –that women partners earn 85% of what their male colleagues earn But that’s only half the story. There are successes: –that LaSalle street firm I mentioned now has 30% women in its Chicago office –half of all law school graduates are women –there are 3 women sitting on the Supreme Court –29% of Federal Appellate judges are women –25% of Federal District Court judges are women –27 % of all state court judges are women –the Chief Justice of the Supreme Courts of 20 states are women –34.4% of all lawyers are women –19% of General Counsels are women, a higher percentage than equity partners in law firms. There was then, and is now, hope in the pipeline. Women today have far more role models than we did, more institutions give at least lip service to values of diversity, and women have more choices. And this, I think, is the important thing, that every woman decide for herself what success means to her. For me, the point of choice came in the early 90’s, when I’d been practicing law for 16 years and had been recruited as a partner to Winston & Strawn to help start its IP practice. My husband Bill came home one day with a plan to buy a new sail boat, an ocean going boat. I reminded him we didn’t live on the ocean. He said, “I’d hate to die without sailing across the ocean some day.” I was stunned by such a big statement, but as some of you know, I took an unheard of 3 month sabbatical from Winston in 1992, and sailed with Bill from Norfolk, Virginia to St. Thomas in a 32 foot sailboat, a journey of 22 days and nights and 1600 miles of open ocean. That’s about 5 mph by the way. Needless to say, it was a life-changing experience, and posed the question, ‘What was it that I wanted to do before I die?” The answer was easy. I wanted to write a novel. I also wanted generally more time to pursue other interests, including more time for pro bono activities and social service. I took time off from Winston, came back after a year, and now combine writing and law on a reduced schedule. Winston had learned from younger women how to be flexible in work scheduling, and as a result, I have written eight novels, one memoir, one collection of short stories, one musical, Fairways, first produced at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles in 2006, directed by my creative inspiration, my sister, Donna Steele. Here’s the plug—Fairways opens next week at endpoint theatre at Second Unitarian on W. Barry. Judge Michelle Lowrance, author of The Good Karma Divorce, who also speaks about Good Karma Lawyering, reminded me the other day that giving attention to my creative life makes me a better listener, a better problem solver and therefore a better lawyer. Lawyers can get so wedded to the demands of what they do that they may give up the oboe, poetry, knitting, mamba dancing, pottery, cooking, painting or whatever it is that gives the left brain a rest and lets the right brain run the show for a while. I would hope that each of you would find time to access and cultivate your own creative side. We all have one. The writing experience has for me been soul-making, and has been made possible by the changes in law firms in the past 35 years. Have they changed as much as we’d like? No. But writing CKH taught me that that is not failure. While writing, I discovered the quote from Rienhold Niebuhr which serves as an epigram to the book, NOTHING THAT IS WORTH DOING CAN BE ACHIEVED IN A LIFETIME; THEREFORE WE MUST BE SAVED BY HOPE. NOTHING WHICH IS TRUE OR BEAUTIFUL OR GOOD MAKES COMPLETE SENSE IN ANY IMMEDIATE CONTEXT OF HISTORY, THEREFORE WE MUST BE SAVED BY FAITH NOTHING WE DO, HOWEVER VIRTUOUS, CAN BE ACCOMPLISHED ALONE; THEREFORE WE MUST BE SAVED BY LOVE. Cultures don’t change in a generation or two. Committees don’t change cultures. But, committees and associations bring us together to help each other. And you can never help someone else without being helped yourself in return. Over the years, I’ve learned from my peers, but I’ve also learned from those who might call me their mentor, especially the younger associates from my days at Sidley. (You’re not so young anymore! I thank you for being here. Knowing you were watching made me do my best.) Those younger attorneys didn’t have to PROVE that women could litigate or make partner or become a judge, and as a result they had the freedom to espouse BALANCE, and the FREEDOM TO CHOOSE A WAY OF PRACTICING law that reflects a personal definition of success. Working part-time with Winston has allowed me to act on my commitment to pro bono legal services, through Lawyers for the Creative Arts and the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chi ago, and I’ve been mentored in Board service and leadership by Bill Rattner and Marci Rolnik from LCA, and by Diana White and Gloria Friedman of LAF. We accomplish nothing important alone. Younger lawyers know this, and have perfected the art of networking and alliance. Where we used to rage up and against sexism, today’s feminists reach out and up and back, getting help, giving help and creating a new culture that supports choice and creativity. Women’s groups like the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois raise consciousness of women’s issues and push for the institutional changes that will support the cultural ones. MOM: Ultimate role model of a professional woman way ahead of her time, wife, mother, caregiver to 2 elderly grandparents who lived with us and FIRST TO VOLUNTEER and FIRST to CELEBRATE. I’m honored that you think that in some small way I’ve followed in her footsteps,but please know that I feel indebted to all women, younger and older and my contemporaries, who have reached back, reached out, and reached up to me. Together, we will accomplish something good and beautiful and true.

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