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August 2014

I could not be more excited to start my year as the President of NAWL.  Many thanks to the 2013-14 board for all of their support, and especially to our immediate past president Deborah Froling for her leadership over the past year.  I am looking forward to working with our current board and exceptional staff, led by new Executive Director Jenny Waters, as we take the organization to new heights.

As I write this, we are just back from the Annual Meeting and Awards Luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.  All of our awardees—Professor Anita Hill, former White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler, LCLD Director Robert Grey and NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan—were inspiring.  The programming throughout the day was thought provoking, and we ended with a Night of Giving benefitting Legal Momentum.  I can’t think of a better way to spend a day!

In response to a number of requests, we’re reprinting my closing remarks from the luncheon.   Have a safe and enjoyable rest of summer!

It is an incredible honor and privilege to become the president of the National Association of Women Lawyers today.  I ‘d like to start by thanking my colleagues at Thomson Reuters, in particular our General Counsel Deirdre Stanley.   I’ve been with the company less than a year, and your immediate support of NAWL and my presidency is a real testament to your commitment to equality in the profession and to the values of Thomson Reuters. I am very proud to be a part of the company.  I also want to thank our immediate past president Deborah Froling—Debbie, you are an exceptional lawyer, a fearless leader, a generous friend and without a doubt the hardest working woman I know.  You have paved the way for me in so many ways, and I want you to know how grateful I am.

When I thought about what I would say today, knowing I would be following such an impressive line up of speakers, I knew I would need to dig very deep for something profound to say. For some reason what kept coming to me was my favorite tee shirt slogan, which is: “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History”. 

I think about the women who founded NAWL 115 years ago in 1899.  They were able to get an education, and be admitted to the bar when women in many states were banned from the profession, and before we could even vote.  I’m sure there were many people who thought they were not well behaved.  Many of those same women marched for the right to vote, for equal employment opportunities, for equal pay and for reproductive rights—that was certainly not well behaved. 

Some of our awardees were apparently not well behaved.  When we think of Anita Hill testifying before Congress in 1991 she was the epitome of professionalism and reserve—yet apparently, to some people, taking the reality of workplace sexual harassment out of the closet and bringing it to the forefront of public debate was not well behaved.  Think about Kathy Ruemmler, who at a remarkably young age brought the perpetrators of one of the largest corporate crimes in history to justice—yet when it was over the press focused on the hot pink high heels she wore.  Apparently hot pink high heels are not well behaved. Who knew.

It has always seemed to me that despite our pop culture image, most lawyers, and most women lawyers, including me, are extremely well behaved.  We thrive on precedent.  But our precedent at the moment is that despite being nearly half of all law school graduates for over a generation, women still lag dramatically in terms of pay and leadership roles in our organizations. This will be the year our profession will not meet the NAWL challenge, which as you heard earlier was that by 2015 women would comprise 30% of law firm equity partners, 30% of Fortune 500 general counsel, and 30% of tenured law school faculty—we are not even close when it comes to equity partners.

So what are we going to do to change the pace of progress?  One recent study found that at the present rate, women will not reach parity with men in leadership roles until 2085.  Most of us won’t be here to see that, and I don’t find that acceptable.

I believe many of the things we and other like-minded organizations are doing are the right things—raising consciousness, skills development, leadership development, networking, and research. But if well-behaved means that women continue to do all the right things that we do, hoping that we inch toward equality in 2085, maybe we need to be a little less well behaved in how we go about it. 

This year, we will be more vocal than ever in getting the word out about who NAWL is and what we are doing.  This year, we will continue to hold all of our popular programs in different areas around the country, the mid-year in March in Chicago, a Pathways to Equity Partnership program in San Francisco, and later in 2015 a Regional GCI in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but expect some surprises. 

For starters, at the General Counsel Institute here in New York in November, I promise the conference will be as serious, intense and inspiring as ever, but in the evening, instead of a standard cocktail party in the hotel, we’re shutting down the shoe department of Saks Fifth Avenue where we will have a private event with wine and appetizers and we will buy all the darn hot pink high heels we want. 

But while we are there, we will need to remember to pick up some army boots, because in April, we’re taking it to West Point for a boot camp on women’s initiatives, where we will focus with military precision on strategy and tactics to make women’s initiatives have the meaningful impact they were intended to have.

And of course there is the NAWL Challenge Club you heard about earlier from Angela and Alan. I am very excited about this new initiative, and it will be safe, collegial and collaborative space, because those qualities are in this organization’s DNA.  But even in that very safe space, Emily Post will need to take a step to the side, because we must talk about pay, we must talk about promotion, we must talk about power and we must act on the tough issues many of us have been socialized not to discuss in polite company.

If any of this makes you uncomfortable, the fact that you are still in the room tells me you are ready to join a very long one hundred and fifteen year old line of at least slightly mis-behaving women. 

If you are a member of NAWL, be active—join a committee, attend our programs, participate in our webinars. If you are not a member, sign up today at nawl.org. If you are a man, join us—this is about the future of your daughters and all of the women in your life.  If you represent an organization, consider becoming a NAWL sponsor and becoming part of the NAWL Challenge Club.

Join us in being a little less well behaved, and as a result, in making history.

Thank you.

Lisa M. Passante

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