ABA president warns against 'blaming women' for gender gap in law

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REUTERS/Yara Nardi

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(Reuters) - The American Bar Association's leadership took pains this week to distance the organization from a recent article that appeared to criticize women lawyers for prioritizing family life after having children.

A June 29 article by Susan Smith Blakely, a career counselor and former law firm partner, described motherhood as "a game changer that can cause very busy women lawyers to lose focus." To succeed at a high level in law, Blakely wrote for the ABA Journal, mothers "must be willing to be team players" and "make time for success in their professional lives, as well as their personal lives."

ABA president Patricia Lee Refo responded on the ABA Journal website Tuesday in a letter signed by all nine former female ABA presidents. Blakely's opinions "are antithetical to the core beliefs and principles of the American Bar Association," she wrote.

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"The lack of upward mobility by women in the profession is not because women are not putting in the time and effort, nor is it because they are distracted by other concerns in their lives," she wrote, citing "systemic issues that need to be faced head-on when it comes to the promotion and retention of women attorneys."

"Blaming women attorneys is appalling," she wrote.

Refo cited ABA research in which 45% of women lawyers reported poor access to business development opportunities because of their gender, compared to 6% of men.

Blakely, a former shareholder at Northern Virginia real estate and land use firm Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley & Walsh, declined to comment on her article or the ABA's response.

ABA executive director Jack Rives said Blakely, a frequent ABA Journal contributor, had generated a fierce social media response with her article. He said that prompted John O'Brien, the journal's editor and publisher, to add a note saying the publication acknowledges "the many concerns expressed to us by those offended by this piece."

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Chinekwu Osakwe covers legal industry news with a focus on midsize law firms. Reach her at Chinekwu.osakwe@thomsonreuters.com.