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Florida Bar President admits he was naive about gender bias

3/16/16- Florida Bar President Ramon Abadin, partner, at miami firm, Sedgwick LLP
3/16/16- Florida Bar President Ramon Abadin, partner, at miami firm, Sedgwick LLP

By Julie Kay, Daily Business Review

Florida Bar President Ramon Abadin invited every male South Florida law firm managing partner to a speech he gave Wednesday about gender bias in the legal profession. Apparently just one showed up, the head of a small law firm.

“I’m highly disappointed there aren’t more positions of power here in the room,” he said. “I realize I’m preaching to the choir.”

Anger bubbled over in the sold-out room dominated by women in the Miami chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers. The chapter hosted Abadin weeks after a Florida Bar survey of female attorneys found widespread sexism in the justice system, with 43 percent of women reporting personal experience with gender bias.

“I thought the number should be zero,” he said. “In my naive mind, maybe it would be 5 percent. But people privately tell me the number is actually higher.”

The survey also showed 37 percent of women surveyed say they have no work-life balance on the job, 32 percent said they lack advancement opportunities and 24 percent said alternative work schedules are not an option.

Female attorneys reported being told to maintain the same work schedule with a 5-week old baby and that single women could easily work nights and weekends.

“You date online, you shop online, but you apparently can’t work online,” Abadin said. “It makes no sense in this modern, high-tech world.”

He relayed the story of his wife, fellow Sedgwick partner Kim Cook, who recently became president of the Miami chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. When chairing her first meeting, an audience member called out, “I thought you were the waitress.”

“One of the men in the crowd should have called him out for speaking that way, but no one did,” he said.

The statistic that made the most impact on the crowd was financial: just 18 percent of equity partners at major law firms are women.

“When 50 percent of law school graduates are women, why are they not then advancing to where the money is, where the power is?” Abadin asked. “They are doing the same work. This is out of whack, out of sync.”

He had no real solutions to offer, noting the bar could offer continuing legal education on gender disparity but could not force men to attend.

People in the audience had ideas of their own. Akerman partner Carol Faber suggested Abadin make speeches at law firms.

“That’s who needs to hear this,” she said. “I’m so sad we are still having this conversation now, which we had when I was first starting out” in 1983.

Mercy Sellek of Maspons, Sellek, Jacobs in Coral Gables, who chaired the Hispanic National Bar Association’s Commision on the Status of Latinas in the Legal Profession, noted the lifetime financial disparity between male and female Hispanic attorneys averages $1 million.

Kristy Johnson, a former president of FAWL’s Miami chapter, minced no words in the question-and-answer period.

“I’m pretty pissed off,” she said. “That survey made me sick to my stomach. The same things that were happening to me and my colleagues 20 years ago are still happening now. It comes down to unethical conduct of male lawyers, so women should report rude comments made to them to bar ethics committees.”

Alexandra Bach Lagos, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Miami, also noted law firms with transparent financial records can’t hide gender pay disparity. Her firm recently switched to an open compensation system.

“A lot of women don’t have open systems in Miami, so women don’t know how much their male counterparts are making,” she said.

Investment adviser Ricardo Estrada of MassMutual South Florida brought several female employees with him to the meeting.

“We have the same challenges, so we wanted to see what we could learn about the issue,” he said.

The bottom line for Faber was about networking: “We women need to refer business to each other.”

IMAGE: Florida Bar President Ramon Abadin, partner, at Miami firm, Sedgwick LLP AM Holt

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