Bar Association event highlights desire for better women’s networking events




New York City Bar Association

Meeting room at the New York City Bar Association in Midtown West. Photo: Aarthi Manohar.

Speakers at an event for women attorneys held at the New York City Bar Association on October 2 agreed that women’s networking events are important—but that they shouldn’t be centered around mani-pedis and cosmos.

“I tend to like women’s [networking] events, but I don’t want them to be about shopping or the spa,” said Sheila Murphy, a panelist and associate general counsel at Metlife. “Get me an interesting speaker and great people I can network with.”

Held in an ornate meeting room at the Association’s Midtown West headquarters, the hour-long panel, led by five established in-house attorneys and organized by the Bar Association’s Women in the Courts task force, gave attendees an inside look at some of the issues facing women who hold in-house positions, which are involve assessing cases and contracting out some of the firm’s legal work.

Coming straight from work to attend the 6:30 p.m. event, women attorneys trickled in late to the female-led panel.  The audience was made up of lawyers of all ages, many of whom seemed to know each other already.

The number of women working in-house is on the rise. In March 2014, the Washington Post reported that the number of female-led legal departments in Fortune 500 companies had increased to 22 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009.

Despite strides made in the in-house counsel profession, gender issues continue to manifest in the relationships between in-house counsel and outside counsel, says Rebecca Berkebile, chairwoman of the Women in the Courts Task Force and coordinator of the event.  Many women holding general counsel positions often work primarily with male outside-counsel counterparts.

“I think it’s just good to get an inside perspective of what different general counsels view as the relevant gender issues,” said Berkebile, an attorney. “These are decision-makers deciding which outside counsel to use and whom to call. It’s important to know what’s relevant in making their choice and what things bother them.”

The panelists focused on the recent phenomenon of women-centered networking events. In order to assess which outside counsel firm might be best to take on a particular case, in-house attorneys must develop professional relationships with different attorneys and attend networking events to find potential candidates.

Elizabeth Hooke, general counsel at Citigroup, explained that outside firms, realizing that a growing number of women were taking on in-house counsel roles, began promoting networking events that they thought might attract women–and get their firms to the top of the bidding list.

Hooke recalled going to such an event, which she felt pandered to stereotypical women’s interests rather than appealing to their intelligence or legal expertise. “You had a choice of going to a panel or a spa, and then the dinner speaker was the lady who wrote Sex and the City,” Hooke said. “There was just this undercurrent of disdain in the room.”

Another panelist, Lynn Gonzalez, an in-house attorney and vice president of business and legal affairs at Universal Music Group’s shared label services, said that she enjoys attending women’s networking events but doesn’t believe that women should simply network with other women. “They’re quite fun,” she said. “But I do find some of those kinds of events kind of condescending… I mean, to think that the only way that women will talk about business is over nail polish.  If you’re trying to get my actual business, you [should be] trying to get my actual knowledge, not what you think I just want to enjoy.”

The majority of the panelists expressed similar views, and all expressed a desire to see networking events for women that are substantive and educational.

But some panelists tossed aside women-focused events as a waste of time, claiming that women don’t need networking opportunities that separate them from men.  “I like to think I’m good at my job,” said Jane Booth, general counsel for Columbia University. “So I don’t go.”

Marina Lowy, general counsel at Mount Sinai Hospital, agreed. “Most things that are advertised as a women’s event, I don’t go to.”

The panelists expressed a need to network and do business with a diverse group of professionals, not just with women. Some of the panelists chalked up the prevalence of women-focused events to the misconception that women feel more comfortable interacting with other women.

Gonzalez believes that women in the legal profession, particularly those just starting out, need to assert themselves and build their confidence—so that their colleagues will recognize that they’re comfortable interacting and working with men and women equally. “It all just has to do with your level of confidence and the fact that you should know that you’re supposed to be there,” she said. “When I walk into a room, I tend to start looking for a person of color or a woman I can relate to… But it’s about getting beyond that and knowing that you’re there for a reason.  You shouldn’t be shy to go up to a random man and talk or ask for guidance.”

Hooke believes that there is merit in any initiative that helps women network.  “You put yourself in a position to say, ‘What would men do?’” she said. “But the effort is a laudable [one].  The only way [women] can really advance ourselves in the profession is to network.”

She said that the most rewarding networking opportunities often arise simply from workplace interactions. “Networking should just be in terms of sharing experiences, getting to know people,” she said. “You never know when someone might have a contact in a situation who might be able to refer you. You learn from working with a variety of people.”

The panelists suggested some alternatives for people looking to network with women who work in-house.  They agreed that pro bono legal service activities, like working with low-income clients or public interest firms, are a good way of bringing together in-house attorneys and outside counsel because they allow in-house counsel not only to interact with different types of attorneys and clients but also to note the quality of outside counsel’s legal work up-front.

Berkebile said she didn’t have a specific reason for organizing the Bar Association event, but thought it might be a good idea since women’s professional issues have been making headlines recently, including a recent article in The New York Times about how female employees receive more negative feedback about their personalities than their male counterparts do.  “A lot of discussion is going on about how women should act and about how society is overly critical,” she said.  “Women just walk a small tight rope over how they should act in the workplace.”

At the end of the talk, many attendees got up to ask questions, or stuck around afterwards to talk to the panelists individually.  Some said that the taskforce’s event was a good example of what a women-focused event should look like. “There’s a distinction between a women’s advancement event like this one versus what you think might appeal to a woman,” said Tamara Daniels, an attorney at Fidelity National Law Group. “Women’s events need to focus more on advancing women in the profession rather than trying to appeal to a woman.”