One hundred and thirty-three years after Kate Stoneman broke the gender barrier and became the first woman admitted to practice law in New York state, the female voice in the courtroom is too often silent.
As a judge, it has long troubled and puzzled me to see women sitting quietly at the counsel table while their male colleagues presented oral argument. Often, the female attorney had written the brief and knew the case and the law inside and out. Frequently, the male partner would confer with the junior female associate when I asked a tough question, indicating to me that she knew the issue better than he. But the woman’s voice was rarely heard.
I conferred with my colleagues in the Seventh Judicial District, who told me, anecdotally, they were witnessing the same thing: female attorneys seen, but not heard, in an era where just as many women as men are graduating from law school.
Then, a groundbreaking New York State Bar Association study confirmed our observations: In courtrooms throughout the state, female attorneys have a speaking role only about a quarter of the time. Tellingly, that number is consistent upstate and downstate, in federal and in state courts, in criminal and in civil cases.
It didn’t seem right that women, and other young attorneys, were denied an opportunity to address the court or jury and hone the skills necessary to take the next steps up the professional ladder. I thought we were somehow falling short of our duty to help develop the most robust and talented bar possible. It seemed we were missing an opportunity to help train the next generation of litigators in the art of oral advocacy, and ultimately shortchanging legal consumers.