“I am change,” Leslie Richards-Yellen ’84 told the attendees of “Raising the Bar: Careers and Experiences of CLS Alumnae,” a day-long conference for students held on March 8, International Women’s Day. Richards-Yellen, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson, as well as a board member of the National Association of Women’s Lawyers, belonged to a Cornell Law class that was twenty percent female. Today women make up forty-five percent of the Law School student body. “Change is happening,” she said, “but it’s probably not happening as fast as you want it to.”
Conceived by former Women’s Law Coalition (WLC) president Connie Lam ’13, the current WLC president Lynne Kolodinsky ’14, and Professor Charles K. Whitehead, the event was hosted by the WLC and came to fruition through funding from the Dean’s Office.
"I am so proud to see this organization take full advantage of its institutional knowledge and connections to inspirational Cornell alumnae and share it with the entire Cornell Law community," said Lam.
Raising the Bar was open to the entire Law School, as well as to students from other parts of the University interested in a legal career. The conference’s four panels, which were moderated by WLC students, focused on the career areas of in-house counsel, business, law firms, and government and public interest. Its fifteen panelists represented a twenty-six year span of Law School graduating classes and a diverse range of careers, from general counsel at Paramount Pictures to executive director of a major behavioral health services nonprofit organization.
"We designed the day to afford current students as much opportunity as possible to directly interact with these alumnae because part of our hope was that the conference would allow students to begin forming the mentoring relationships that are so important moving forward," said Kolodinsky.
Panelists offered an abundance of advice, from the broad (be flexible, take risks, don’t let anyone ignore you) to the specific (proofread your work). Cynthia Hess ’88, partner at Fenwick & West, advised aspiring lawyers to go with their guts when choosing a workplace, admitting, “I said ‘no’ to one firm because I hated the color of their carpet.” When asked what makes a good lawyer, Section Chief and Assistant Attorney General of New York State Rebecca Durden ’88 said simply, “You have to love what you do.” The themes of diversity, progress, and the struggle for parity also arose throughout the day.
A luncheon for attendees featured an address by Gretchen Beall Schumann ’01, director and former president of the New York Women’s Bar Association and partner at Cohen Rabin Stine Schumann, who emphasized the importance of building a professional network and finding mentors — an exhortation echoed throughout the conference by many speakers, among them Hon. Shira Scheindlin ’75 of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, whose early mentors included Cornell University graduate and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Another prevalent topic was the work-life balance and whether women can “have it all.” Classmates Scheindlin and Joyce Haag ’75, retired senior vice president and general counsel of Eastman Kodak, related the skepticism they faced as wives and mothers when they entered the field in the 1970s. Lori Bostrom ’90, senior vice president and deputy general counsel at Oppenheimer Funds (and one of several panelists who mentioned meeting their husbands at Cornell Law), expressed her hope that the harmonizing of professional and personal obligations will increasingly be viewed not as a women’s issue but as a “family issue” that affects both genders.
Kolodinsky added, "We have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from both alumnae panelists and student attendees, and we are very hopeful that we can continue to host this event in future years."
“Conferences such as this one are a valuable way for students to meet and learn from experienced alumni,” noted Professor Whitehead. “It was also a great venue for our graduates to connect and re-connect with each other. I’m hopeful the Law School can continue to act as a platform for these important relationships.”