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Lawyers Club maintains prominent role in community

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The Lawyers Club of San Diego was founded in 1972 as a way to address discrimination and other obstacles facing women in the law, the legal profession and the community.

Nearly 40 years later, the organization is still providing much needed support in the effort to advance the status of women in society and ensure equality in courtrooms and law firms across the region.

“We’re a strong force in the San Diego legal community,” said Wendy Behan, who was recently installed as Lawyers Club president. “We’re very well respected in the community and our voice is listened to.”

Lawyers Club is the second largest bar association in the area, behind the San Diego County Bar Association, with approximately 1,000 members, a third of whom are male.

The group features more than 30 committees, addressing issues from work/life balance to proper mentorship.

It hosts monthly luncheons, numerous continuing legal education (CLE) programs and an annual resource fair for homeless women.

“Not in my wildest imaginings -- and I have a pretty good imagination -- could I have foreseen 35 years ago what it is today,” said San Diego attorney and former congresswoman Lynn Schenk, one of Lawyers Club’s founding mothers. “It’s a wonderful feeling, probably not too unlike having a child grow up and be very successful in life, doing well by doing good for others.”

In 1971, Schenk was one of three female attorneys who defied the gender restriction at the US Grant’s Grant Grill, which prohibited women from eating lunch. The groundbreaking trio returned often until the restaurant removed its “No women before 3 p.m.” sign.

Schenk later joined with Judith McConnell, Sharron Voorhees, Christine Pate and Louise De Carl Malugen to serve as the first directors of Lawyers Club.

They specifically chose a gender-neutral name for the group, coined by Schenk’s husband Hugh Friedman, to be inclusive so everyone who is committed to the fair treatment of the law, regardless of gender, is welcome to join.

The organization’s membership roster is littered with federal judges, U.S. attorneys and managing partners of some of San Diego’s biggest firms.

And it has more than its share of success stories. In 1992, Schenk became the first woman to represent San Diego in the U.S. House of Representatives; Melinda Lasater was the first woman elected president of the San Diego County Bar in 1985; and McConnell is now a justice for the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

“Lawyers Club exposes you to a broad variety of women in the profession,” said Behan, an associate with Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield. “It’s also a great opportunity for me to meet people outside of my practice area that I wouldn’t be able to meet.

“That’s one reason why Lawyers Club is still relevant today, 38 years after it was born.”

Adriana Sanchez, a 27-year-old litigation associate for Best Best & Krieger, was given a membership to Lawyers Club as a graduation present from former board member Sarah Evans three years ago.

“It’s one of the greatest presents I got,” said Sanchez, who immediately attended several CLE events.

“It was nice to be in a room full of women. For a young girl fresh out of law school that was a much less intimidating venue than a lot of other club events.”

As another important service, the group publishes an annual equality survey, which gauges the percentage of women and minority attorneys and partners in San Diego County law firms.

Lawyers Club also raises money for its Fund for Justice, a charitable foundation that serves “at risk” women and children.

“As the Constitution has survived for many years because it is in some ways flexible and adaptive to the times in which it exists, Lawyers Club also has the ability to be flexible and survive the times in which it exists,” said Schenk, now working as of counsel for Baker & McKenzie. “That is because of the profoundly good leadership that it has.”

When Lawyers Club was founded, there existed a huge disparity between the number of male lawyers and the number of female attorneys. The idea of women being admitted to a firm’s partnership was discouraged and women attorneys were expected to wear skirts in court, Schenk said.

While there are more women graduating from law school now than ever before – about 50 percent of grads are female -- the percentage of women in the legal profession still lags behind men. And it’s why Lawyers Club has continuing relevance today.

“In many ways, younger lawyers who are women have it so much tougher than we had it,” Schenk said. “While those (discriminatory) things are not said, they are thought. We are still in that transition. So it’s subtle, more nuanced.

“(My experience) as a young lawyer was so fraught with overt discrimination -- the kind of things that would shock the conscious if it took place today. I’m shaped by those, so I’ll sometimes see discrimination when it’s not there.”

Behan, the current Lawyers Club president, plans to continue to position the group as a strong voice for women in the legal community.

“But also get members more active and committed to the organization,” she said.

Behan also wants to reinvigorate the group’s mentor/mentee program, pairing up successful veteran members with young attorneys and not just law students.

Best Best & Krieger’s Sanchez, for one, appreciates the positive role models that permeate Lawyers Club, like her mentor Sarah Evans, an associate with Schwartz Semerdjian Haile Ballard & Cauley.

“She’s an attorney with two kids, a husband and is super successful,” Sanchez said. “She’s inspiring to me, as are tons of other women who have accomplished excellent reputations and careers as attorneys. It’s good to have women like that around.”

Another sign the organization is still pertinent: it’s thriving membership.

“In these tough times, lawyers are cutting back expenses that are not central and core to the business,” Schenk said. “We have maintained a very strong core commitment to Lawyers Club -- and our dues are not cheap. I’m impressed with that. That says something.”

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