Looking Out for Women and Other Lessons

Earlier this month I attended the Annual Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law event, drawn by the event’s namesake. Justice Ginsburg (a.k.a., the “Notorious RBG”) spoke first, introducing her long-time friend, Brooksley Born, the event’s keynote speaker. While I was admittedly less familiar with Ms. Born, I found her keynote lecture and subsequent Q&A captivating and illuminating.During the Q&A, one question from the audience suggested a growing divide between women of Ms. Born’s and Justice Ginsburg’s generation (who worked arduously for women’s rights) and those of the millennial generation (who may take those rights for granted). As a millennial, I was happy to hear that Ms. Born was not inclined to accept such a premise. Rather, she offered the perspective that young women do in fact appreciate the many obstacles that women in previous generations had to overcome.Ms. Born, who graduated as one of seven women of a class of 135 from Stanford Law in 1964, acknowledged that women who graduate from law school today (accounting for nearly half of overall J.D.’s awarded) enter a wildly different profession than she did and are perhaps less acutely aware of the difficulties women have faced in the past striving to achieve their professional goals. However, she believes that despite the differing circumstances of millennial women entering the legal profession today, such women recognize there is still much work to do.All of us – women in the law across generations – owe it to each other to live up to Ms. Born’s remarks and to support one another in these continued efforts. Ms. Born’s career serves as a model for how this can be accomplished in several ways. Messages from her lecture that resonated with me most include: Look beyond personal successTo strive exclusively for one’s own success is to fail to recognize the lessons offered to us by Ms. Born and her peers. They were not contented to become one, or one of only a few, women at the top of the legal profession. Rather, each strove to make sure she was not the only woman at the top. Ms. Born, for example, founded the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Women’s Caucus and served as chair of the National Women’s Law Center, which both aim to empower women in the field.Strive for organizational change Ms. Born was inspired to join the ABA when she did because the stances the organization had taken relating to women’s rights at that time fell short of the expectations she had for progress for women in the profession. She did not shy away from organizations in which change was needed; rather, she committed herself to bring about the change she desired.Take bold positions As head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Ms. Born was one of the first to warn of the dangers of the unregulated derivatives market during the heyday of deregulation. We know how that story ends, but should not lose sight of the unpopularity of Ms. Born’s position when she took it. It strikes me that her willingness to take unpopular stances and her conviction have played vital parts in her work towards the advancement of women’s rights.Look to the future Ms. Born noted that women’s gains should not be taken for granted – they have been hard fought and should be seen as stepping stones to a larger goal. She highlighted certain facets of the legal profession where she believes further action is necessary, such as challenging the predominance of the billable hour and the underutilization of family leave and part-time policies in law firms.Shall we accept Ms. Born’s invitation to support each other and follow in her footsteps as agents of change?Colleen Traflet is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office. Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com. RELATED CONTENT