Chief Justice Lee Sees Progress Made in Advancement of Women in Legal Profession, Stresses Need for More

May 12, 2015

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Lee challenged the legal profession to set the standard for all professions and make gender equality a top priority.

Chief Justice Lee’s remarks were made at the East Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women (ETLAW) annual Supreme Court luncheon. Attended by the Supreme Court justices; local trial, appellate, and magistrate judges; local attorneys; law professors; and students, the event is an annual opportunity for members of the bench and bar to get to know both the Supreme Court justices and ETLAW.

In her speech, Chief Justice Lee cited statistics from the July 2014 American Bar Association publication, A Current Glance at Women in the Law. She noted that although women make up 47% of law students and 45% of private practice associates, only 17% of equity partners are women. Most concerning, she said, is that female attorneys make only 79% of what their male counterparts pull in. There is even an 11% pay gap between female and male equity partners in the nation’s 200 largest firms.

Chief Justice Lee said she was proud to lead a state Supreme Court that has a female majority, but pointed out that it has been less than three decades since the first woman, Martha Craig Daughtrey, joined the Tennessee Supreme Court. Of the 101 Tennessee Supreme Court justices throughout the state’s history, only six have been women. Chief Justice Lee drove her point home by noting that three of those six were in attendance at the luncheon.

Thus, Lee stated that although women are attending law school at a near equal rate, there is a “leaky pipeline” in the profession that often leads to a lack of female representation in top leadership positions.

“This must be our mission: to close the gap within our profession and to be a model so that we may better effect change in society as a whole. Disparity in opportunity and professional advancement does not benefit anyone, and it harms everyone,” said Lee. “Change has to come from all corners of our profession: from employers, local bar associations and organizations, colleagues and spouses, and yes, from women ourselves.”

Chief Justice Lee applauded the successes women have achieved and praised change leaders in the industry, such as law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, noting that their policies are good first steps on the path to supporting employee family life. Lee also expressed hope that bar associations will increase their outreach to women attorneys, especially women of color, law students, and other underrepresented groups. She also implored all professional organizations to begin an honest dialogue about pay disparities and working conditions.

Finally, Chief Justice Lee encouraged women to support each other, to get involved in professional organizations and not to be afraid to fail. She used her story of persevering after failure as an example of learning how to lose gracefully and to benefit from that process. She also emphasized the duty to others and to the community.

“You have to give back. None of us is here thanks to our work alone. We are here as professional women because others have come before us, and we must acknowledge and celebrate that,” she said.

Lee emphasized mentorship, stating, “We must reach up to receive and accept advice from women and men who have more experience and wisdom than we do, and we must reach down and bring the next generation with us. We must create opportunities and spaces for young professionals to grow and give them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible—just as someone once gave us that same benefit.”

She concluded with a call to action to begin taking these steps towards change.

ABOUT ETLAW: ETLAW is a professional legal organization comprised of female attorneys who seek personal and professional development and share a desire to advance women in the legal profession and in society as a whole. The organization was founded in 1983 by a group of pioneering women who sought to organize and connect female attorneys in the East Tennessee area. Today, there are ETLAW members spanning a wide variety of legal practice areas, including the judiciary. There are many benefits of being an ETLAW member, including professional development, continuing legal education, and networking.

See more photos from the event here.

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Lee

See more photos from the event here.