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The Champion

June 2013 , Page 10 

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Women in Criminal Defense

By Susan K. Bozorgi

Ensuring that women play a more vital role in criminal defense requires that women assume a responsibility for helping other women working in the field and women just entering it. 

Providing Insight And Encouragement Along the Way to Other Women Defense Attorneys

Criminal defense has long been, and continues to be, a male-dominated field. In spite of that, 21 years ago NACDL members had the foresight to elect their first woman president. Since then, five more women have led the organization. Today women make up 31 percent of practicing lawyers in the United States and just over 20 percent of NACDL members. But statistics do not tell the whole story. Women may still be a clear minority in criminal defense, but we are no longer on the sidelines. Our contributions are forever woven into the fabric of this field, and this organization.

As the number of women graduating from law schools steadily increases — today women constitute almost 50 percent of law school graduates — it is clear that based on numbers alone, women will be playing an even more vital role in the future of criminal defense. But ensuring this requires that women assume a responsibility for helping other women working in the field, and those just entering it.

We need to mentor women lawyers who are in the early years of their careers, help them navigate the challenges inherent in business development, and open doors for advancement and leadership opportunities. We need to do these things especially because many of us know firsthand how tough it was to build our own practices in the absence of such support. Building a community for women criminal defense lawyers starts with increasing opportunities for women to meet and connect with one another. We will strengthen our collective voice by making every effort to support our female colleagues already in the trenches, by welcoming women new to the legal profession, and by providing insight and encouragement along the way.

This edition of The Champion shines a bright light on the legal expertise of women in the field, both those contributing articles here and the broader community of women criminal defense lawyers who as a group bring unique skills and perspectives to our profession. Included in these pages are discussions on grand jury reform, conducting internal investigations, the unfortunate meet ‘em and plead ‘em system of criminal justice, and deferred prosecution agreements. In addition, the article and brief accounts about the humiliation that women lawyers in Arizona have had to face, in order to simply gain access to their clients in jail, will resonate with many women who have faced this same problem in other parts of the country.

Some of the most fearless and dedicated defenders among us are women. Whether it is compassion, listening skills, or the ability to analyze a client’s underlying motivation or story, women tend to view advocacy through a different lens. Our society, in many ways, operates based on long-held stereotypes about men and women. And while there is nothing fair about this, it remains true that preconceived notions about gender affect how a message is received and accepted. We might view as an upside the fact that a woman can deliver an aggressive cross-examination without being seen as a bully. A woman can show emotion without being perceived as weak. A woman can send a powerful nonverbal message to a jury by simply touching a client’s arm. Embracing these differences will only serve to strengthen and enhance our profession.

NACDL is committed to supporting women and increasing opportunities for women to strengthen their community. Local NACDL women’s events are being held all over the country, women continue to consistently contribute as lecturers at conferences, and women have held and currently hold positions of leadership in our organization. A picture paints a thousand words, and the pictures of women in this issue of the magazine represent the faces of NACDL leadership that welcome a new generation of women to the criminal defense family.

I have been passionately fighting for clients facing criminal charges for 20 years. I have strong connections to many of our male colleagues and feel lucky to have had incredible male mentors. Although there were women along the way who could have contributed to my development, they simply did not seem accessible to me. My hope is that women entering the field today and in the future feel that they have access to the insight and the experience of other women who have gone before them.

As a member of the NACDL Board of Directors and chair of the Women’s Task Force, I can say without question that the most rewarding experience has been, simply, getting to know other women lawyers from all over the country who have inspired and energized me. Before I attended the recent NACDL women’s events, I had not realized how much I needed to connect with others who share experiences that are unique to being a woman criminal defense attorney.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has re-energized a conversation in this country about the role of women in business, and the title is quickly becoming a symbol for the current generation’s commitment to achieve full equality. Lisa Wayne, an NACDL past president, made huge strides toward focusing on women in this field. It is an unprecedented time for women in law, with women at the helm of many national bar associations such as the American Bar Association, American Association for Justice, Cuban American Bar Association, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and many others. Women are in positions of leadership that will influence and shape the future of our profession. It is more important than ever to reach out, up, and back to connect and draw upon the knowledge base of fellow women to enrich your own experience and enhance and improve the profession. I cannot imagine a more critical time for women in this field to lean in and take steps to support other women.

Without question, there are challenges that women criminal defense attorneys face that are unique to being a woman, but what unites us as defenders regardless of gender is that the toughest challenge remains fighting for our clients’ rights. Ultimately, male or female, we all function as a voice for our clients. The voice that fights for justice, liberty, and dignity for every client is the heartbeat of our profession. But women have a unique role to play, and now is the time to work toward strengthening our collective voice, not only for ourselves but also for the women who will follow in our footsteps.

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