Accomplished women litigators and high-achieving women associates were honored by NYSBA’s Commercial & Federal Litigation Section on Nov. 13 with the Hon. Shira A. Scheindlin Award for Excellence in the Courtroom and the Hon. Judith S. Kaye Commercial Litigation Academy Scholarships.
Section Chair Laurel Kretzing hosted the annual event, which coincides with the anniversary of women gaining voting rights in New York, Nov. 6, 1917. The 2019 awards were presented at a ceremony in New York City where speakers included U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, Jonathan Fellows, section chair-elect and Daniel Wiig, section vice chair.
Five Kaye scholars and two Scheindlin honorees were recognized at the event. Scheindlin awardees are top litigators who have demonstrated a strong commitment to mentoring women lawyers. The Judge Kaye scholarships fully fund the scholars’ attendance at the section’s two-day Commercial Litigation Academy, where they can hone their trial skills and develop the techniques needed to be first chair in a litigation. All award winners are women.
Calling the event the “night of the Sharons,” Judge Scheindlin praised award winners Sharon Porcellio (member, Bond Schoeneck & King, Rochester) and Sharon Nelles (partner, Sullivan & Cromwell, NYC).
Porcellio, she noted, served with her on a team of women – all former Commercial & Federal Litigation Section chairs – that produced a groundbreaking report entitled “If Not Now, When?” on the lack of equality for women in the courtroom.
Nelles, an influential securities litigator, works extensively on issues that affect female and LGBTQ+ lawyers, and recently sponsored a forum on women in the legal profession.
Judge Scheindlin talked about the progress women lawyers have made while acknowledging the need for improvement. She also had another message.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss what I think has become a major issue, not just in the legal profession but in our society – and that is the lack of civility,” said Judge Scheindlin. She listed a number of personal attacks routinely made by politicians on people with whom they disagree, including an accusation of treason, “so-called” judges and appearance-based smears. She worried that “we have become so accustomed to this kind of conduct that we are no longer shocked or shaken.”
“We are trained as lawyers to begin an argument by saying ‘I respectfully disagree,’” Judge Scheindlin noted, adding that she “truly” hoped that her grandchildren didn’t hear the U.S. senator who publicly said of the House speaker “it must suck to be so dumb.”
“How can I explain that conduct,” she asked, and still expect her grandchildren “to behave like grown-ups?”
Judge Scheindlin thanked the attendees who “are committed to improving our profession and, I have no doubt, to improving the tone and quality of our public discourse. I am grateful for that.”
NYSBA President Hank Greenberg presented the Judge Kaye scholarships to Erica Barrow, Melissa Gerecci Meyler, Joanna Chen, Sarah Washington and Gabriela Wolfe, associates at law firms across New York state.
In brief remarks, Greenberg observed that their applications had shared two themes: the need for role models and their desire to be mentors to and role models for other women.
“That is the heart of the Kaye scholarships,” said Greenberg.
Keynote on Diversity
Greenberg also gave the evening’s keynote address, which focused on diversity. He began by noting that ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “marked the largest expansion of democracy in American history.” Despite the strides women have made, he noted, the section’s report on women litigators revealed that women still face seemingly intractable barriers. Most important, it is not just women.
“The hard truth is that the law remains one of the least diverse professions in the nation. The data, frankly, are discouraging,” Greenberg said, adding that efforts to retain and promote women and people of color to leadership in law firms, courtrooms and boardrooms appear to be stalled.
Worse, he noted, public officials are using “ethnicity, race, religion, national origin, gender and faith” to divide our citizens, not to bring them together, undermining the foundational idea of America: E pluribus unum – out of many one.
“We must confront what Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the fierce urgency of now,’” said Greenberg, urging lawyers to lead in diversifying the profession and in educating their communities.