Sharing Legal Power

Boston bar director aims to see women serve - and be served - fairly. INTERVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TODAY'S law schools may be 50 percent women, but that doesn't mean women will get half the clout, says Judith Nelson Dilday. She says more equality is needed in the Bay State's court system - for lawyers and clients. Ms. Dilday was recently installed as president of the Women's Bar Association in Massachusetts. She is the first black to hold the office.

The organization she heads was formed 12 years ago ``by women who wanted to take an activist stance in the communities to advance the position of women in the legal profession and also support the interests of women in the state,'' says Dilday in an interview in her Back Bay Boston office.

Since then, the association - made up of law students, paralegals, and lawyers - has seen a lot of changes for the better, she says: More women are judges; more women are partners in law firms; more women are generally more visible - appointed to important positions in both state and city government.

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``I think a lot of it came about as a result of the activism and the visibility of these women and others,'' says Dilday, a woman with a dynamic smile. A graduate of Boston University's Law School, Dilday is a partner with Burnham, Hines & Dilday, the first law firm in Boston whose partners are black females.

Despite the great strides women have made in the law field, says Dilday, many biases remain in the court system. ``One of the things that we find now is that there are subtle barriers to women that still need to be addressed,'' she says.

Many of the barriers she refers to were uncovered in a 1989 gender bias study sanctioned by Massachusetts's Supreme Judicial Court. The study examined areas of bias ranging from court personnel and courthouse interactions to domestic violence, criminal law, and family law.

The study found there were ``inbred perceptions, psychological feelings that people have about what's appropriate for women to do,'' says Dilday, mother of three and a specialist in family law. (Her husband is also a lawyer.) People often don't know they have such biases; it's sometimes unconscious because it can be part of culture and society, she explains. ``But they actually have these feelings which turn out to work for men and against women.''

She cites an example: There's a general feeling that men who seek custody of their children in divorce cases are less likely to get custody than women because women traditionally have taken care of children. (In the majority of divorce cases, women are granted custody by mutual consent; men don't usually ask for it.) ``But actually what happens,'' says Dilday, is that ``any time a man even asks for custody, the woman against whom he's arguing is usually held to the standards of a super-parent; whereas the man - just because he seeks custody - is thought to be wonderful.''

The bias study prompted the Women's Bar Association (WBA) to draft several bills. One seeks more consideration for the primary caregiver in a custody case - often the mother. She suggests that judges ask ``who has done all this for the child in the past?'' Who picks up the kids from school? Who drives them to appointments?

``Sometimes the person who's seeking custody in the divorce hasn't done any of that,'' she continues, ``and we thought the person who had been doing that all along should have some weight to his position....''

Research from around the country shows that a woman's standard of living declines more than a man's after a divorce, says Dilday, because women are left with a disproportionately large cost of raising children and a disproportionately small share of the marriage's wealth and earning power.

With that in mind, the WBA proposed another bill asking judges to make awards based on the tax consequences of property division, costs, and child support or alimony in divorce cases. ``The women, I think, a lot of times come out much worse because of the way taxes fall,'' says Dilday. The bill also asks judges to consider women's lost years in the workplace. The woman who has ``stayed home to take care of the children has lost a lot of years out of the work force. ... This sacrifice should be considered a contribution to the marriage and should be compensated when they divide up property,'' says Dilday.

Among the goals of the WBA, Dilday says, is the appointment of more women judges. ``We have very few women out of 300-and-some judges in the state ... and hardly any minority women at all.'' (There are two.)

``We need more,'' Dilday says. ``We need to represent the population that comes through the court.''

How can that come about? ``I believe we have qualified candidates,'' says Dilday. But ``you have to have a government that's willing to appoint qualified candidates ... it's very political.'' The judge-appointment process is supposed to be secret, so it's difficult to determine what is happening. Moreover, minority women in law ``don't belong to the `old-boy' network, and there is not an `old-girl' network. It's hard to get a foot in the door,'' she says, much less get into a partnership.

In the future, the Women's Bar Association - and groups like it in other states - ``has to remain visible,'' Dilday concludes, adding that ``to a certain extent you have to be a thorn in the side of people who would relax and say that all is accomplished.''

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