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Paving the Road Ahead

According to the American Bar Association’s 2013 report, “A Current Glance at Women in the Law,” young women are making impressive strides in the legal profession. Nearly half (47%) of JDs awarded in 2013 went to women, and women held 43% of the leadership positions at top-ranked law journals. However, there is still ample ground to cover before they reach gender equality: The report showed that more than 80% of partners in private law firms are men, and women made up just 4% of managing partners among the nation’s 200 largest firms.

Thanks to new leadership positions and increased recognition, though, women lawyers in the New York area are paving the way for their younger counterparts. In February 2014, leading civil rights law firm Sanford Heisler promoted Deborah Marcuse to partner, and appointed her as the co-manager of the firm’s New York office. The firm has 50 attorneys and staff nationwide, 16 of whom are based in New York. Marcuse joins two other women in the firm’s top leadership roles: Felicia Medina, managing partner of the firm’s San Francisco office, and Katherine M. Kimpel, who heads the Washington, D.C. office.

Marcuse, who serves as lead counsel in the case of Barrett et al. v. Forest Laboratories et al., a national gender discrimination class action filed on behalf of pharmaceutical sales representatives, is also passionate about defending civil rights. “As the child of a gay parent, I grew up feeling a particular responsibility to make sure that the rights I might be able to take for granted are available to everyone,” she stated.

New York women attorneys also used their legal expertise to find creative ways to address social justice issues. Nicole Noonan, a former family law attorney, leveraged her visibility as a divorce expert to found National Divorce Capital, Inc., a New York-based organization that will provide funding to women engaged in divorce proceedings. “Women for decades have been challenged by a legal system fraught with inequality,” Noonan stated. “My goal is to help women level the legal playing field by providing equity through equity.”

Other women lawyers have won accolades after years of proactive work in the profession. Michele Coleman Mayes, who is vice president, general counsel and secretary of The New York Public Library, received the 12th Annual Ida B. Wells Barnett Justice Award for her work in a variety of legal settings. The award, presented by the New York County Lawyers’ Association and the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, honors a woman of color “whose life reflects her spirit and courageousness by distinguishing herself in the fight for racial and gender equality.” The Hon. Pam Jackman Brown, a member of the New York State Supreme Court and chair of the committee that selected Mayes, praised her in an official statement for being “a solid example for those looking to take similar paths.”

Women are constantly working to make opportunities for themselves in a field that remains two-thirds male. But these accomplishments help highlight the ways in which they are supporting and inspiring fellow women practicing law in New York.