Women shaping Clark County’s law industry

A once male-dominated space has seen considerable growth in Southwest Washington

JDimitrov

In an industry that has been historically male-dominated, Clark County has seen considerable growth in the number of women succeeding in law. After speaking with a few of these ladies, the general consensus seems to be that Clark County is a receptive, tolerant and supportive community to practice law as a female. Great strides have been made in mindsets over the years, and while more work remains, the unique character strengths that women bring to the table are being embraced as an asset in large and small firms alike.

While not an attorney herself, Cindy Johnson, founder of Women in Networking (WIN) NW, has a unique vantage point. Through WIN Northwest gatherings, her relationship with female lawyers has exposed her to the trend of more women employed in multi-attorney firms, which may be male-dominated, leaving to open independent practices. Johnson said that women are bringing compassionate and nurturing qualities that tend to be more female-driven to their clients. She notes a high percentage of female-owned businesses in the community that can affect the decision-making of female consumers. Johnson goes on to point out that women have a great tendency toward giving their heart to causes they’re passionate about.

“Many attorneys that I personally know are very committed to some pro bono work as well as volunteering on nonprofit boards. I’ve witnessed and feel that it is important to them to give back and be involved in our community,” Johnson said.

Set to retire in two weeks, 49-year-old Jessica Dimitrov, partner at Dimitrov, Senescu & Babich, found her passion, and a support system, and as a result has left her mark on the face of law in Clark County in her 24 years of practicing. She echoed that women bring a different perspective to the landscape, are natural problem-solvers and take the big picture into account when negotiating an outcome that works as well as it can for both parties.

Dimitrov’s firm focuses on elder abuse, probates, guardianships, vulnerable adult protection and fiduciary litigation, which early on caught the attention of the courts and other law enforcement officials in Clark County. Dimitrov is credited as being instrumental in the formation of the Clark County Vulnerable Adult Task Force and said that the small town feel of Clark County allows women to set themselves apart in a way that is more challenging in larger, metropolitan areas.

With clients as far away as London, Germany and India, Dimitrov noted that women have a tendency to perform more of their own administrative duties. However, she added, with the increased usefulness of technology, this is less of an issue. The ability to communicate immediately and effectively, to e-file documents and have access to the entirety of the United States jurisprudence online goes a long way in freeing up time for client exchange and business building as well as decreasing overhead for smaller, female-led law firms.

Dimitrov believes large firms are still lagging behind in the male-to-female partner ratios, but it’s improving. She’s seen steady growth over the years and greater acceptance.

“It has been a really long time since anybody thought that I was the court reporter. There is no longer the assumption that the woman in the room is staff,” Dimitrov said.

Lisa Lowe, partner in charge at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, agreed with Dimitrov’s stance that women have come a long way in Clark County and the intimate feel of the community is a contributing factor in the camaraderie amongst colleagues and varied opportunities for women. A graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, Lowe’s focus is on estate and business succession planning as well as general counsel for the Port of Vancouver.

In 1983, when Lowe began practicing law, there were no female judges, no women in charge and she was not being interviewed by women. Today, we have judges, including Clark County Presiding Judge Barbara Johnson, female court commissioners and ladies in district court and in several other aspects of the law. Lowe pointed out that early female attorney presence was in more stereotypical areas of the law, but today they’re in employment, personal injury, land use, litigation and general counsel law. Additionally, she said, there are more partners-in-charge at larger firms, citing Pabst, Holland & Reynolds as a solely female-owned and operated firm – an ideal example of how women are changing the landscape of law.

So what’s behind the industry shift? It may be due to more women in decision-making roles, as Johnson mentioned. Lowe pointed out that the growth in female lawyers sends a message to people in charge of hiring and helps put more women in leadership. She said she’s seen that support from her male colleagues, as well, adding that “I wouldn’t be partner-in-charge if not for the men in my firm.”

According to Lowe, it doesn’t come as naturally for women to applaud themselves or take accolades, no matter how deserved they are, so recognition is still a challenge. That’s something that Lowe hopes female support networks like Washington Women Lawyers (WWL) and WIN Northwest can help with.

Lewis & Clark Law graduate, Mary Gaffney, has been practicing law for 28 years. As a partner with Boyd, Gaffney, Sowards & Treosti, she focuses on criminal, family, and personal injury law. She is also a trial attorney in those areas. Her father was a lawyer and judge and her oldest brother is a lawyer. She grew up watching trials and insists that even after she retires she’ll still be found in courtrooms. She is a prime example of the passion that the women in Clark County’s law industry bring to their profession.

Gaffney sees women as equally represented in the courts, and has faith that the number of women judges and court commissioners will increase in time. She agrees with Dimitrov and Lowe that attorneys have a responsibility to their community to be leaders outside of their office. To find a way to give back, in line with one’s value system, seems to be the most important point for women in law.

She goes on to say that she feels women are great advocates of the system and bring a strong sense of integrity to the law profession.

“We’re all just trying to improve the public opinion of the profession and I just try to do that on an individual basis,” Gaffney said. “I’m just trying to practice law the way I want to live my life. It’s a very noble career and I’m so thankful that I am able to practice.”

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