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Making Strides

Making Strides
Women lawyers in Southern California have been increasingly taking on new leadership roles and seeking out challenging cases.

The most recent demographic survey conducted by the California Journal found that women comprise approximately 39% of lawyers in the Golden State. That is a significant increase from 20 years ago, when women accounted for little more than one-quarter of the profession.

California tops many states in this respect; nationwide, only one-third of attorneys are women. Still, there's room for growth: Nationally, more than 80% of partners in private law firms are men, and women fill just 4% of managing partners' seats at the nation's 200 largest firms.

In recent months, though, women lawyers in Southern California have taken on new leadership roles and sought out challenging cases. Here are some ways they are working to level the playing field.

The California Women's Law Center (CWLC) celebrated the successful conclusion of a years-long Title IX case at Alhambra High School. In 2003, the school district spent $900,000 on several state-of-the-art athletic facilities that were for the exclusive use of its boys' baseball team. The CWLC joined forces with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC) to bring a suit against the school district on behalf of its female students. The suit was the first in California to challenge Title IX compliance at the high school level.

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After years of litigation, a settlement was reached in 2006. The school has since worked to remedy inequalities, and in December 2013, the U.S. District Court announced the end of its oversight of Alhambra High. "Alhambra High School's work in connection with this settlement shows that any high school in California can comply with Title IX, which has been law for over 40 years," Elizabeth Kristen of the LAS-ELC said in a statement.

Women lawyers also championed military veterans. Cacilia Kim of the CWLC and Elizabeth Kristen of the LAS-ELC were contacted by 19-year-old Airman 1st Class Trent Smith, who had been forced out of the military after reporting a sexual assault. The two attorneys secured an independent forensic psychiatric assessment of their client, which contradicted the U.S. Military’s diagnosis of a rare personality disorder. They plan to use this as a basis for an appeal of Smith’s dismissal. “All I want to do is serve my country. I hope that our appeal is successful,” Smith told the press.

Other California attorneys turned their attention to politics. Lawyer and activist Sandra Fluke recently announced her plans to run for Ted Lieu’s seat in the California Senate. Fluke first made headlines as a law student at Georgetown, when she gave Congressional testimony in favor of mandatory insurance coverage of contraception — and soon drew the ire of conservative radio commenter Rush Limbaugh.

After graduating from law school and passing the California Bar Exam, Fluke moved to Los Angeles and worked on behalf of causes such as the foster-care system and the living wage movement. "I believe that the families and communities of this district — from West Hollywood to West L.A. and from Santa Monica to Torrance and beyond — deserve to have a fresh perspective from a new generation of progressive leadership in Sacramento, and I am eager to get to work fighting for the causes that matter most to our future as a community, state and nation," Fluke said when announcing her candidacy.