Women Emerge from Miami Law Ready to Lead

Women Emerge from Miami Law Ready to Lead

PICTURED Hilarie Bass, J.D. ’81, Deborah Enix-Ross, J.D. ’81, and Carolyn Lamm, J.D. ’73
PHOTOS BY Barry Brecheisen

Carolyn Lamm walked into the conference room of a Manhattan law firm to begin negotiations over a large-scale merger and realized, yet again, that she was the only woman in the room.

It was the 1980s, so Lamm was used to being surrounded by male attorneys in blue suits and white shirts. And given the times, she was far too accustomed to what came next: one of the male attorneys asked Lamm if he could have some tea.

“I said, ‘I’m sure you can, but you can’t get it from me,’” said Lamm, J.D. ’73. “He was so discombobulated when we sat down at the table and saw that I was on the other side. It motivated me to want to crush him.”

Ever since Arabella Mansfield became the first American woman allowed to practice law in 1869, female attorneys in the United States have fought a never-ending battle for equity in the legal profession. It wasn’t until 1928 that federal courts seated a female judge. It took another 50 years for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to become the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and another 40 years before Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman on the Court.

When Lamm arrived at the University of Miami School of Law in 1970, she was one of only 10 women in the class of 376 students. But Lamm, now a partner at White & Case and a member of the University of Miami Board of Trustees, said the school quickly evolved after she graduated by accepting more female law students and preparing them to take on leadership roles.

Miami really opened their doors to women in a significant way. Women felt comfortable there and it gave them a good basis to work from.

Producing Women Leaders

By 1991, women made up 37% of 1L students. By 2001, the number had risen to 48%. And by 2021, women were 57% of the school’s 393 1L students.

Those numbers have translated into more women in leadership positions throughout Miami Law. The editors-in-chief of all five of the school’s law reviews were women in the 2021 – 2022 school year. The Dean’s Advisory Council, the Law Alumni Association Board of Directors, and the Young Alumni Committee were all led by women. And two of Miami Law’s past four deans have been women.

That evolution has resulted in the unprecedented feat of three female Miami Law graduates serving as president of the American Bar Association: Lamm from 2009 – 2010, Hilarie Bass, J.D. ’81, from 2017 – 2018, and Deborah Enix-Ross, J.D. ’81, who began her term in August.

“That’s the environment that these successful women are coming out of,” said Laurie Silvers, B.A. ’74, J.D. ’77, and chair of the University of Miami Board of Trustees. Getting there wasn’t easy.

Tackling Challenges Along the Way

Ask any female attorney, and they’ll likely have a story about the subtle and often blatant examples of gender bias they’ve had to deal with in their careers.

Each of the three Miami Law ABA presidents has faced it. They’ve seen their colleagues repeatedly passed up for plum assignments or promotions. They’ve heard the snide comments and endured unequal pay.

And still, they hear the age-old argument that women can’t juggle their responsibilities as mothers with their careers.

“Women consistently say that the day they became a parent, it affected negatively the kind of work they were given, their opportunities to work with top clients, their compensation, all because of this inherent assumption that they were less committed to their profession from that point forward,” said Bass, the immediate past chair of the University of Miami Board of Trustees. “Men, on the other hand, as soon as they become a parent, they’re perceived to be a breadwinner, they’re going to work harder than ever because now they have a family to support.”

When Lamm graduated from Miami Law and the U.S. Department of Justice hired her, she was one of 20 women out of approximately 400 lawyers in the civil division of the main DOJ. And Bass is tired of being the “first female” to do things, like when she became the first woman to head the global litigation department at Greenberg Traurig.

“I’m really happy that it’s going to be harder and harder to be the first of anything,” Enix-Ross said. Enix-Ross has dealt with the additional struggle of being a Black female attorney in an industry dominated by white men. And she’s felt that bias at every step of the way.

After graduating from Miami Law in 1981, she returned to her native New York and passed the bar exam on her first try. When she sat for her interview with the New York Character and Fitness Committee, Enix-Ross told them she was interested in international law, hoping to land a job at a global New York firm.

“And they said, ‘Why don’t you do legal aid?’” she said. “It felt to me like, ‘You’re Black, why aren’t you doing civil rights law or legal aid or legal services?’ I remember thinking, ‘I can tell them what I’m really thinking and maybe not pass this character and fitness exam,’ or I can say, ‘Thank you for that suggestion.’”

She chose the latter and passed the state bar, but sure enough, every international law firm turned Enix-Ross down. She was on the dean’s list as an undergraduate at the University of Miami, graduated from Miami Law, and held a certificate in international law from the London School of Economics. However, she couldn’t get a single big firm to hire her.

After each failed interview, she struggled to understand why.

“I would say, ‘Is it because I’m Black, is it because I’m a woman, or I just didn’t meet the needs of the people?’” she said.

Eventually, she accepted the job the bar officials suggested, working for MFY Legal Services in New York City. It took her seven years to finally get a job in her field when the U.S. Council for International Business hired her.

Finally in her element, she rose quickly. Enix-Ross served as in-house counsel and director of legal affairs and was named the American representative to the International Chamber of Commerce International Court of Arbitration. She was finally there. Her dream of practicing international law and traveling worldwide was coming true.

Her first trip was to Paris, where she was to meet members of the American legal community and practice her French. But when she arrived at a social club to meet her American counterparts, the man at the door refused to let her in.

“Now I’m standing there and thinking, ‘Is this because I’m Black or because I’m a woman?’” she said. The club was all-male. After insisting that people were waiting to meet her, she begrudgingly allowed the staff to walk her through a backdoor and up a staircase through the kitchen.

The Americans she finally met were enraged and refused to return to the club again until it changed its policy. But the incident served as yet another example of Enix-Ross enduring the kind of treatment her white, male colleagues have never felt.

You choose your battles. You stand up where you can. You make changes where you can. And sometimes, maturity dictates that you don’t fight every battle.

A History of Great Women in Law

Despite the hurdles, Miami Law’s women have been excelling for decades.

In 1949, Jeanette Ozanne Smith started her teaching career at Miami Law, becoming the sixth female law professor in the country. She was joined a few years later by M. Minnette Massey, who became the eighth. They became part of the “First Wave” of 14 women who elbowed their way into the male-dominated world of American law school professors.

Smith taught at Miami Law for 27 years, and Massey became the school’s first female interim dean from 1962 – 1965.

A decade later, Miami Law chose Soia Mentschikoff as the first full-term female dean of Miami Law. She had already broken ground on several fronts by being the first female law professor at both the University of Chicago Law School and Harvard Law School and serving as a principal drafter of the Uniform Criminal Code. She was the first woman to be seriously considered for a U.S. Supreme Court seat and became known as the “first woman everything.”

Silvers said Dean Mentschikoff served as an invaluable mentor to her during her time as a student. The two would talk about the law, her classes, and Silvers’ more prominent role in the world after she graduated. Silvers was shocked that “somebody at that level would take an interest in this little law student.”

“She took a liking to me, was very influential, and did a lot of prepping me to be my best self, to not think of myself as a female going to law school to get a degree, but as an intelligent person going to law school to get a degree,” said Silvers. Silvers went on to become an entertainment lawyer, media entrepreneur, and philanthropist.

Carolyn Lamm, J.D. ’73, Deborah Enix-Ross, J.D. ’81, and Hilarie Bass, J.D. ’81.
Carolyn Lamm, J.D. ’73, Deborah Enix-Ross, J.D. ’81, and Hilarie Bass, J.D. ’81

Over the years, five of the school's 16 deans have been women. Female graduates have worked at all levels of government, served as federal and state judges, and risen through the ranks of domestic and international businesses. They've served as advocates for refugees and asylum-seekers and helped protect the constantly imperiled Everglades.

There are too many to name, but a few illustrate Miami Law's exceptional female leaders. In April, Yvette Ostolaza, B.A. '85, J.D. '92, became chair of the management committee at Sidley Austin, making her one of only a handful of women to hold such a role at a global law firm. Personal injury lawyer Julie Braman Kane, J.D. ’93, is a recent past president of the American Association for Justice, the world’s leading trial bar.

The Honorable Bertila Soto, J.D. ’89, became the first Hispanic Chief Judge in the county and was the first female Cuban American Chief Judge on the 11th Circuit in Miami-Dade. The Honorable Laurel M. Isicoff, J.D. ’82, is the first woman chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Patricia Ireland, J.D. '75, served as the National Organization of Women president for 10 years. In July, DeAnna Allen, J.D. '96, became the president of the National Association of Women Lawyers, following in the footsteps of Dorian Denberg, J.D. ’92, who served as president of NAWL in 2010 – 2011.

“As a new member of the Miami Law community, I am extremely proud of our history of women leading the way,” said Miami Law Dean David Yellen, who began his term in July. “From our three ABA Presidents to our five deans, Miami Law has been graced by so many women who are great lawyers and great leaders.”

Helping the Next Generation

Miami Law’s female graduates have tried to make climbing the legal ladder a little easier for the next generation.

Lamm, an international arbitration expert, created the Carolyn Lamm/White & Case Scholarship to help students trying to get a postgraduate degree in the White & Case International Arbitration LL.M. , and six of the past seven recipients have been women.

Bass has donated so much money to scholarships at Miami Law that the school renamed the brick courtyard at the center of the law campus “The Bass Bricks.”

Silvers has donated several scholarship funds at Miami Law and mentors young women in high school. Once a month, Silvers visits Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton and counsels female students on their schooling, dreams of college, and life goals.

“It’s more than just writing a check to some wonderful charity,” Silvers said. “When you can be in someone’s life, coach them, and help turn them around, it’s so fulfilling.”

As each has risen, they’ve also used their increasing power to demand more women in the legal profession, from associate level to the C-suite.

As a board member of the International Council for Commercial Arbitration, Lamm brought together representatives of the major international arbitration institutions globally on a task force that ICCA co-sponsored to produce a 227-page report on gender diversity within that field. The report found that after years of work to diversify its ranks, women still comprised only 21% of the international arbitrators appointed in 2019.

But Lamm said the true power of that report was creating a roadmap for female attorneys trying to break into that field. And as a partner at White & Case, she has ensured that her teams of attorneys include many women.

“I try to work with the best,” she said. “I really think women have an obligation to help other women, to help other women have an easier time moving forward.”

When Enix-Ross was named the American representative to the International Court of Arbitration—the first for a Black woman—she remembers the first time she was asked to suggest an arbitrator for a case. A colleague handed her the pre-drawn list of recommendations.

“The list might’ve had 30 names on it, but there were no women,” she said.

She changed that and has tried to hire more women at each career step. As president of the ABA, she isn’t shy about saying that diversity will be a significant factor when making the hundreds of committee appointments within the association.

She’s already named Roula Allouch, the daughter of Syrian immigrants, to head the ABA’s Center for Human Rights.

“She wears the hijab, she’s young, she’s dynamic,” Enix-Ross said. “She is a rising star, and I cannot tell you how good it feels to play a small part in supporting her.”

Bass, the Miami Law grad who headed the ABA from 2017 – 2018, has taken her commitment to diversify the legal profession to a career-defining level. As president of the association, she created the “Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law,” which has led to a vast body of research understanding the problem and charting paths to fix it.

Then, after 39 years at Greenberg Traurig, where she rose from being Mel Greenberg’s mentee to co-president of one of the biggest law firms in the world, she left to start the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion.

As the president and founder of the institute, Bass shows law firms how to change their hiring and retention practices to remove the implicit (and explicit) bias that continues to harm females and other minorities in the field. She works directly with young female attorneys to help them chart their courses. And she works to shift the profession away from “check the box” moves on diversity to actual, lasting changes.

We now know what it takes for women to be successful. We now know what law firms need to do to ensure they’re being supportive of women. But it starts with a commitment from senior leadership. Unless it’s there, it’s all words on a page.

On the Road Towards Equity

Bass says female attorneys are in a much better position today, though still cognizant of how far they remain from true equity.

According to the ABA’s 2021 report on gender disparity—the fourth in a series of reports ordered by Bass—women make up 36% of lawyers nationwide and 47% of associates, but only 24% of partners. Women of color face an even harsher climate: they represent only 3% of all equity partners.

Even when women reach partner status, the ABA found that male equity partners earned 27% more than their female counterparts.

Along the way, women still face bias that drives many of them out of the profession entirely. They are less likely to be in the lead chair during jury trials or named the lead of corporate deals.

Bass estimates that 80% of annual reviews of women still mention their personality in some way, compared to less than 20% of male reviews. And despite all the advancements of the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March, and other women’s rights drives, about 50% of female attorneys still say they’ve received unwanted sexual advances at work, according to the ABA.

According to Bass’ research, by age 50, nearly 75% of female attorneys have left the profession. Bass said those numbers show a significant problem remaining in the quest for gender equity in the legal world. She said “superstars” like Lamm would always find a way to succeed.

“You’re not going to keep someone like that down,” Bass said. “But when you look at the average, hard-working lawyer who just wants to have a great career, then you really find very few women and a whole lot of men. We’ll know we’ve really arrived when the average, hard-working woman lawyer can do as well as the average, hard-working man.”

Lamm said she’s thrilled to see more female faces on the three-member panels that decide most international cases. But even then, she sees the ongoing problem.

“To see one appointed is a big thing,” she said. “To see multitudes, that’s not always the case. There are a lot of things in terms of life and in terms of business that still need to progress.”

Bass said some law firms have decided on their own to diversify their leadership, and others are forced. Many firms had to address the raging pay disparity between men and women. Larger clients have demanded that their law firms increase the number of women and minorities in their upper ranks, even requiring diversity numbers for specific teams working their accounts.

But even with that pressure, Bass said the number of women at the top of law firms has leveled off or even begun to shrink in recent years.

Enix-Ross looks at the landscape for women in her field, and she remains conflicted.

She thinks back to her time at Miami Law when she was one of just two Black women in her class, paying for her tuition and books with small donations from her church back in her hometown of Harlem. But then she considers her success. She ponders the success of her other Black classmate, Teretha Lundy Thomas, who served as an administrative judge on the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida for over 25 years. She praises the historic ascension of Justice Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.

“We should be careful to stop and take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, gain some energy, and then press forward,” she said. And then she smiles.