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From Sandra Dee to Sandra Day: Justice O\’Connor and Women Attorneys

It was almost twenty-five years ago that Sandra Day O\’Connor was
appointed as a justice of the United States Supreme Court. In the time
since Justice O\’Connor\’s appointment to that august bench, a
transformation has occurred – a transformation caused by the ever
increasing number, authority and position of women lawyers.

Twenty-five years ago female attorneys were such a novelty that they
were often mistaken for nonprofessional support staff. Women attorneys
dressed like men in boxy suits and bow ties (pant suits were generally
considered taboo), and oftentimes tried to mimic men in their behavior.
Women attorneys who were too aggressive were called pit bulls in
lipstick. Women who were not pit bulls were called too soft to be
litigators. Settlement judges in the Baltimore suburbs asked women
attorneys for hugs and senior partners in Charm City law firms asked
women associates to get them coffee. When women attorneys, who felt the
sting of bias, raised issues of gender discrimination, a common
reaction was that women should “just grow up and stop whining.” Women
who complained too much were seen as humorless or oversensitive. Women
attorneys were often cast as a Sandra Dee supportive helpmate and not
strong and powerful in their own right.

How times have changed! When Justice O\’Connor took the bench, only one
third of law school graduates were women. Now, approximately one-half
of the students graduating from law schools are female. Since the
1980\’s, the number of female partners in major law firms has grown from
a negligible percentage to almost twenty percent. Nationwide, over
forty percent of associates in major law firms are women. Indeed, the
insurance industry, once considered a field too rough and tumble for
female sensibilities, is routinely represented by women attorneys.

Since the appointment of Sandra Day O\’Connor, the Maryland Courts have
changed. Although there is certainly no clear causal relation, New
Jersey established the first gender bias task force in the year after
Justice O\’Connor\’s appointment. Now, most state judicial systems,
including Maryland, have gender bias task forces. The Model Code of
Judicial Conduct (as well as the Model Rules of Professional Conduct
for lawyers) now prohibits gender bias. The number of women judges has
grown so that currently twenty five percent of the judges on the
Maryland Court of Appeals and one third of the judges on the Maryland
Court of Special Appeals are women.

Indeed, courts are becoming less reluctant to sanction attorneys where
their conduct is meant to be or perceived to be motivated by gender
bias. Nationally, attorneys have been sanctioned for referring to women
attorneys as “young girl,” “little mouse,” and “little girl.” The
Maryland Court of Special Appeals in Mullaney v. Aude has upheld
sanctions against an attorney who called opposing counsel “babe.” Such
behavior, once common place, is no longer tolerated.

Corporations, both nationally and locally, have insisted upon change in
the legal field. Now, over one third of corporate counsel are women.
Many corporations have come to expect women to work on their cases and
corporate matters. Practically gone are the days where women attorneys
were excluded from the dog and pony shows presented to potential
clients. In fact, many Maryland corporations require information on the
gender make up of a firm\’s attorneys where the firm is responding to a
request for proposal. Some corporations even require that the number of
hours worked by female, male and minority attorneys be tracked
throughout the course of a case.

As Justice O\’Connor looks back at the progress that women lawyers have
made during her tenure, she should feel pleased but perhaps not yet

Ms. Lambert rose to national prominence as a litigator with a focus on insurance law in an age when there were few women litigators, particularly in the area of insurance law. Ms. Lambert has spent the last twenty years developing what is now recognized as one of the largest insurance practices in the state of Maryland. She lectures nationally, has received a gubernatorial appointment in the field of insurance, and is sought for her advice by Fortune 500 companies.

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Women's Law Issues
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