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'Candid talk' on women in law

April 8, 2015
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â??Candid Talk: Women at the Barâ?? presenters Bernadette Catalana (left) and Kelly Odorisi offered female attorneys tips for success. (IL Photo/Dave Stafford)

Attorneys Bernadette Catalana and Kelly Odorisi faced jaw-dropping experiences on their paths to success, like being called “cupcake” by a judge, or being told to “act more like a man” when clearly treated differently because of their gender.

Such stories elicited exasperated groans and knowing nods from female lawyers of all ages who recently attended the inaugural presentation of “Candid Talk: Women at the Bar” at Barnes & Thornburg LLP in Indianapolis. The discussion was co-sponsored by Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana’s Women in the Law Division.

“We have wanted to have this conversation for a long time,” Catalana said, opening a frank dialogue on the challenges women face in a profession that’s still largely male-dominated. The discussion ranged from professional skill-building to work/life balance; from how to build a practice to what to wear to court.

For the record, the women said legal fashion faux pas include anything see-through or showing cleavage, club attire, backpacks or clothes that are too short or tight. While most can agree on what’s unacceptable, Odorisi observed that it’s still not unheard of to run into judges, for instance, who object to women wearing pants to court.

“Someone’s going to surprise you with an attitude you don’t expect in this day and age,” Catalana said.

Even young attorneys could relate. Frost Brown Todd LLC lawyers Nicola Mousdicas and Jessica Schnelker, both in their second year of practice, said Catalana’s story of being detained by courthouse security longer than male colleagues resonated with them. They’d both had similar experiences.

“Those things still happen,” Schnelker said.

Mousdicas said the program provided an outlet for conversations that in some contexts remain taboo. The American Bar Association reported that in 2014, women represented 34 percent of the legal profession.

Getting ahead

“Our society does not prize outspoken women,” Catalana said, noting she’d often heard the expectation that women be “sweet, small and quiet. … We overcome that through excellence.”

Odorisi, a Ball State University graduate who is Catalana’s neighbor in Rochester, New York, where both practice, stressed the importance of networking and making contacts that can help develop a book of business.

“You can’t just sit back and wait for this to happen,” Odorisi said. “I cast the net wide.” That included keeping in contact with law school classmates, high school friends, and professionals she met, often outside work. “Find your passion, and get charitable,” she advised.

But networking provides other benefits. Some of her most lucrative matters were those she brought to her former firm and referred to another attorney. “I was being true and honest,” she said. “What (potential clients) don’t like is when you boast and oversell.”

Networking helped Odorisi develop contacts and build a practice in which she handles complex trust settlements throughout New York, formerly with a large firm, and now in her own practice. Catalana is a leading asbestos litigator who serves as mass tort national coordinating counsel for a Fortune 100 client.

Lawyers have a less-than-stellar reputation as marketers, Odorisi observed, and she and Catalana stressed the importance of being genuine, developing a personal business plan and following through. “You have to get cozy with the idea of marketing,” Odorisi said.

They also said it’s crucial that women have at least one trusted friend in whom they can confide – lateral mentors, if you will. Catalana and Odorisi said that’s the relationship they’ve developed.

Can you do it?

Gender Top 10 Tips factboxWhile lawyers strive to make names for themselves, young female attorneys haven’t always embraced their abilities, Catalana said.

She shared a story from law school, which she juggled with raising two toddlers. She had a brilliant male study partner, and she found herself sometimes subjugating her talents to make his shine brighter.

It was only after a professor insisted that she let her better skills come to the fore in an oral advocacy presentation that she agreed. Her study partner nonetheless was crushed, she recalled, and she felt badly because of it.

A few years out of law school, Catalana was faced with a unique career opportunity that she also considered a daunting complex litigation challenge for someone early in her career. She turned to a partner in her firm at the time and asked, “Do you think I can do it?”

Catalana said she got a reality check when the partner replied, “What do you think?” She said at that point she realized she had the skills, but she also realized she lacked the confidence in her own abilities.

“I took ownership and did what needed to be done at the time,” she recalled. “You are not a ‘lawyerette.’ You are a lawyer.”

Barnes & Thornburg management committee member Terri L. Bruksch had worked with Catalana in the past and extended an invitation to her and Odorisi to debut their program at the firm’s Indianapolis headquarters. Bruksch said the program was a rare opportunity.

“In my experience, we don’t often acknowledge there are unique challenges facing women entering the profession,” she said.

Managing expectations

Joyce Thompson was able to meld her passion for sports with her legal training, and she serves as associate director of enforcement for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Sometimes she worries that her confidence might be seen by some as arrogance.

“That is their problem,” Catalana said, as long as Thompson is satisfied with the results of her work.

“It’s very difficult in this profession when you’re trying to be perfect in all aspects,” Odorisi said. That’s particularly true for women who sometimes put themselves last behind family and work.

She recalled a point in her life when she and her husband both were working long hours to establish their careers while raising two children. She reached a point where she said, “I was so stressed out, I was good to no one. … To not feel like you have control over things in life is very difficult.”

She realized she had to rebalance – something that eludes many women who end up leaving the profession.

“This is a hard profession to be in, but it’s worth it,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Kori McOmber chairs DTCI’s Women in the Law Division, which formed last year, and said the presentation was valuable for young lawyers and those who’ve been in the profession a few years.

“Some of the comments that resonated with me had to do with other topics we might want to cover in the future: what to expect when you become a partner, what we can do as a profession to keep women in partnership positions in law firms, how to be a good mentor to younger lawyers,” McOmber said.

It’s a conversation that’s likely to continue.

“What resonated with me the most was just being true to your own self,” Thompson said after the program.•

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