(Photo by Don Kadair)
For Phyllis Cancienne, her status as the only female managing partner of a major law firm in Baton Rouge is a sign that while women comprise a large percentage of lawyers in the city, it’s now time to promote them.
“I think women are very well represented in local law firms and being hired at very healthy rates. Almost 50 percent of our associates are women,” says Cancienne, Baton Rouge managing shareholder of Baker Donelson. “The challenge we face is retention, keeping them focused and promoting them to shareholders.”
Cancienne has been practicing law for 25 years and opened the Baton Rouge Baker Donelson office 10 years ago. A labor employment attorney, she mainly works for traditionally male-dominated industries but says she doesn’t blink an eye at being a woman surrounded by men and “they don’t either.” Cancienne graduated from LSU Law Center in 1989, nine years after experts say the law profession changed dramatically for women. In the late 70s and early 80s, women lawyers faced gender inequality in law school, courtrooms and many male-dominated law firms.
“They used to call them ‘lady lawyers,’ ” says Jan Reeves, president of the Baton Rouge Association of Women Attorneys. “And if a ‘lady lawyer’ did go to court, she was asked to do minutes if the court clerk wasn’t around. “
BRAWA was formed in 1978 to lobby the Louisiana State Legislature to abolish the Head and Master Law, which stated if there was a dispute within the household, the man had final say. Louisiana was the last state to terminate that law, in 1979. Many of the gender inequality laws were also rewritten in Louisiana following former President Ronald Reagan’s 50 States Project, which was signed in 1981 to end discrimination against women. Because of that project, a committee, appointed by then Gov. Edwin Edwards, changed 22 laws. These laws redefined women’s roles as a wife and mother and ended discriminatory language. Some of the changes include: laws to protect women from domestic violence, laws to make marital rape illegal and requiring day cares to be licensed.
Ann Wise is the founding director of the Louisiana division of administrative law, served as vice-chair of Edwards’ committee and was instrumental in changing the 22 gender discriminatory laws. She has been practicing law for 35 years and says she experienced gender discrimination both in law school and in her early career.
“I had a professor say to me point blank, ‘You should be at home being a wife and mother,’” Wise says. “I’ve been treated dismissively. I would get honeyed and sweet-hearted all the time. What’s changed is acceptance. We used to be an oddity and a commodity, but now you see women professionally everywhere.”
DISCRIMINATION IS HISTORY
Katherine King is a partner with Kean Miller, a mother of three and practices energy regulatory and telecommunications law. She graduated from LSU Law Center in 1981 and the mother of three says women in her generation all have stories of gender discrimination but says as more women saturate the field, the discrimination is in the past.
“Women of our generation all have stories like that,” she says. “But I don’t see it anymore, and I have never felt like that with Kean Miller.”
It’s important to have women attorneys in leadership roles because there are more women in corporate leadership positions, says Steve Boutwell, director of client services for Kean Miller.
“A lot of our clients are women,” Boutwell says. “You have to be able to provide attorneys who are like their clients. The legal profession has traditionally been a white, male-dominated profession largely because going to law school was a privilege at the time with both the cost and the social aspect. In the late 60s and early 70s you saw more and more women in the workforce in general and then also into the legal profession.”
Boutwell says Kean Miller hired its first woman attorney in 1984. Currently, 40% of the 153 attorneys are women and 25% of the 86 partners are women. Kean Miller also has a mentoring group that helps mentor associates and offers advice on balancing career and families.
Cancienne says mentoring was a key component to her success.
The Shreveport native and mother of two teenagers credits women mentors, a supportive husband and a flexible work schedule with her professional success. Cancienne practiced law for nearly eight years before she had children.
“Putting the hours in and establishing myself certainly helped with my success,” she says. “But early on I had some mentors who encouraged me to go to law school and when I graduated, I was very blessed and fortunate to have female lawyers mentoring me. They gave me the confidence that I could balance a legal profession and have children. They had done it so it gave me the confidence that it could be done.”
In an effort to retain women lawyers, provide them with a flexible work schedule and promote them into leadership roles, Cancienne says her firm has a parental leave policy that offers both men and women attorneys 16 weeks of paid leave to use after having or adopting a child.
“It’s an amazing benefit and a move in the right direction,” she says. “And it sets our firm apart that we’re really making a commitment to our employees.”
A TOUGH MARKET
Baker Donelson is also one of 15 law firms across the country participating in OnRamp Fellowship, a 2014 pilot program aimed at helping women lawyers with three years of experience, who have been out of the law profession for at least two years, find a job.
OnRamp finds one-year trial positions for these women attorneys at participating firms, and the firms pay them $125,000 per year plus benefits and they are mentored and shadowed. As of March 4, OnRamp placed 15 women in vacant positions and two of them have been offered full-time jobs before the end of their trial year.
“Most law firms look at people based on tenure,” says OnRamp Fellowship founder Caren Ulrich Stacy. “Well if a woman works for five years and is off for 10 years raising her family, then law firms say, ‘What do we do with her? There’s no way to test her.’ And those are fair questions. Law firms are so worried about a person coming in and not being able to service a client that they’re too big of a risk and they don’t hire her. The goal of this is to bring more women in to law firms and advance them into leadership positions because there’s a huge gap at the top.”
While the national job market may support those with experience, other experts say it is difficult for recent law school graduates to find entry level positions which is have an adverse effect on enrollment.
“The job market is really tough right now,” says Gail Stephenson, director of Legal Analysis and Writing and an associate professor of Law at Southern University Law Center. “Applications to law school are the lowest they’ve been in 30 years. There’s been so much publicity about student loan and debt and tuition has gone up. If you manage to graduate high in your class or have a family member in the field, then there are still good jobs to be had out there, but it’s tough if you don’t have a job waiting.”
Gender diversity in Baton Rouge’s five largest law firms
Percentage of female partners: 30.7%
Percentage of female attorneys: 43.6%
Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips
Percentage of female partners: 30%
Percentage of female attorneys: 33%
Percentage of female partners: 23%
Percentage of female attorneys: 39%
Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson
Percentage of female partners: 16.28%
Percentage of female attorneys: 18.52%
Would not disclose