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Hard work can overcome bias in legal industry

Women in legal profession say ‘there’s been some progress’

This article was featured in RBJ’s Path to Excellence magazine published June 22, 2018.

Jacqueline Phipps Polito

Jacqueline Phipps Polito

Jacqueline Phipps Polito, a partner at Littler Mendelson PC, was inspired to become a lawyer by the attorney who helped her family after they were involved in a car accident when she was a child.

Flor M. Colon, associate general counsel and chief ethics officer at Xerox Corp., chose a legal career because of her parents’ focus on education and their insistence that she choose a profession.

Kate McClung, a partner at Bond Schoeneck & King LLC, initially planned to become an economist, but her experience on the University of Rochester debate team convinced her to switch to law.

And Seema Ali Rizzo, a partner at Gallo & Iacovangelo LLP, became interested in being a lawyer by watching law-themed movies with her father.

All four of these women have achieved notable success in their careers, but each followed a slightly different path to getting there.

Seema Ali Rizzo

Seema Ali Rizzo

When she was 12, Polito was in a car accident with her mother, older sister and younger brother. Their vehicle was struck by another car that ran a stop sign.

In the legal case that followed, Polito’s family was represented by an attorney and she became infatuated with him.

“Not because he was good looking or anything like that, it was more like he was helping our family, so I had this connection to him and I thought that’s what I want to do when I get older; I want to help people when they’re in difficult situations,” she said.

“It was an experience that shaped my life,” Polito said.

In 1993, when Polito graduated from Albany Law School, the consensus among her few female colleagues was to try to fit into the “boys club” — “try to learn how to play golf and take our clients out for drinks instead of recognizing as women that we might try to do things slightly differently,” she said.

Polito said two men she worked with “were wonderful mentors to her.” And as she started to work with younger women, she strived to help them.

“A lot of the things that I do is to make sure that the women feel comfortable in their roles as leaders and managers,” she said.

As a mother she can relate to female colleagues dealing with work and pregnancy and maternity leave — “all of those are really difficult transitions for women,” she said.

But she “definitely had to fight to achieve the level of respect” she now has. When younger male associates went to court to watch her argue a case, everyone assumed the associates were the attorneys, she said.

“I had plenty of times I walked into a room and they assumed I was a court reporter and not the attorney,” she said.

But things have changed since she started out because women who started about the same time as her “took it upon ourselves to demand change, or ask for change, and I think the law firms have responded to that.”

Colon, who graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1988, said the barrier she broke as a female

Flor Colon

Flor Colon

attorney had less to do with the success of her career, and more to do with simply getting to law school in the first place.

She was born in New York City and her parents were Cuban immigrants. Her father was a carpenter and her mother was a seamstress.

Colon was the oldest of three children and her parents didn’t speak English. From the time she learned to read, she read the mail for her parents and helped them with all sorts of translation issues.

If someone called on the phone, she had to interpret.

“I spent a lot of my early teens advocating for my parents, whether it was with landlords, or doctors, in any way they needed,” she said.

She decided to be a lawyer when she was in high school. There was a problem with the plumbing in her family’s apartment and the landlord was not responsive.

Her parent got help from a Legal Aid lawyer who wrote a letter and got the problem fixed in a day or two.

“I remember thinking to myself what an amazing thing that was. This person had written a letter and gotten something my parents had been fighting to get on their own for several days,” she recalled.

“For me it sort of just was this amazing thing that this person, who had a law degree, had been able to do that,” Colon said.

Colon also was sometimes mistaken for a secretary or a paralegal when she first started out as a lawyer. But any barriers she overcame only existed for the very early years of her career.

“I think my work ethic and my hard work speaks for itself. I feel that I’ve had to work hard, but I feel that I’ve proven I can do the work I’m doing and I have a reputation that I’ve created for myself based on my hard work and my authenticity,” she said.

Rizzo doesn’t feel that she had quite as many obstacles to overcome on her path to success.

“I think women of my generation have had a different experience than perhaps some that are more senior to me who probably broke more barriers,” Rizzo said.

Half of her 1997 class at Syracuse School of Law was female.

“I think reaching the partnership level at a law firm is probably something that doesn’t happen for woman as often as it does for their male colleagues,” she acknowledged.

Rizzo said her becoming partner at Gallo & Iacovangelo is “probably breaking barriers to some extent.”

Her advice to young attorneys is to maintain a balance between your job and your personal life.

“But I think giving back and community service is part of that balance,” she said.

Kate McClung

Kate McClung

Rizzo is involved in a program to development of leaders in the Indo-American community. And she is president of the Collaborative Law Association of the Rochester Area.

McClung also said the generation of lawyers before her did a great deal to ease the way for the younger female lawyers who followed.

“I’ve worked with a number of female attorneys who were 20 years older than me, and hearing their stories, and what they went through, is very different than the experience that I had, which gives me hope for the younger generations,” McClung said.

Early in her career, McClung worked at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in New York City with Judith Kaye, who went on to become the first woman to serve as chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals.

After Kaye graduated law school she interviewed with one large firm that offered her a job as a secretary, even though she had very good grades and did very well in law school.

“I think there’s been some progress,” McClung said, noting that her experience has not been the same as her peers from law school.

“I think I’ve been very fortunate with who I’ve worked with at different firms, and with those individuals my gender was not a factor at all in my work,” she said.

McClung moved to Rochester after she gave birth to twins and felt this would be a better place to raise a family.

When she was looking for a job here, McClung explored the various law firms’ websites to determine their track record for making women partners.

“I wanted to go to a firm where I could get promoted to partner and stay at that firm the rest of my career,” she said.

She looked at news releases that chronicled who was promoted to partner.

“You can see on the website how many female associates there are and it’s pretty easy to draw a conclusion as to what firms have a poorer track record of making women partners,” she said.

McClung said her advice to new female attorneys would be the same advice she would offer young male attorneys: “Be passionate about the work; go above and beyond every time; and always be on the lookout for opportunities to develop your work skills.”

“Even if are working with someone who’s going to be biased against you because you’re a woman, if you can show them what a great job you can do I feel like you can, even in that situation, overcome that,” she said.

bloudon@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-232-2035

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