Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network celebrates more than 125 years of women NYU Law graduates

Building on NYU’s longstanding commitment to women in the law, the year-old Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network (BWLN) aims to help more women reach the highest levels of the legal profession. The project was launched last year as the Women’s Leadership Network, and this year has been renamed in honor of NYU Law Trustee Sheila Birnbaum ’65.

NYU Law accepted women as law students for the first time in 1890, decades before most other law schools. In the years since, they have broken many barriers. Among the trailblazers: Crystal Eastman ’07, who cofounded the American Civil Liberties Union; Judith Kaye ’62, the first woman to serve as chief judge of New York State’s highest court; and recently Damaris Hernández ’07, the first Latina partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

“The women of NYU Law have achieved professional success that the very first graduates would have hoped for but perhaps could not imagine,” said Dean Trevor Morrison, Eric M. and Laurie B. Roth Professor of Law, at a special reception hosted by BWLN, Law Women, and the Women of Color Collective on February 22 to commemorate the more than 125 years of women graduates from the Law School.

But Morrison noted that much remains to be done to achieve full equality for women in the legal field. As the New York Times reported in 2017, women make up fewer than 35 percent of lawyers at law firms and only 20 percent of equity partners, although they comprise 50.3 percent of law school graduates. BWLN’s goal is to identify and help overcome the hurdles that women face in advancing in the legal profession.

Julie Ehrlich ’08, executive director of BWLN, outlined BWLN’s major priorities: developing women’s leadership skills, increasing women’s success in law school, and working with legal employers, academics, and other allies to advance equality in the work place. To achieve these aims, BWLN has created the Women’s Leadership Fellows Program, which combines mentoring, experiential learning, and individualized support for the law students who are fellows. They participate in the Moss Women’s Leadership Training Program, a boot camp for leadership skills named in honor of Sara Moss ’74, executive vice president and general counsel of Estée Lauder and a founding supporter of BWLN.

Florencia Marotta-Wurgler ’01, BWLN’s faculty co-director alongside Melissa Murray, is also conducting an empirical study to identify obstacles to women’s success at the Law School. This research will guide NYU Law in adjusting its curriculum and culture in order to help female students thrive.

At the commemoration event, Marotta-Wurgler joined a panel on “Women Leading the Way: Reflections on Experiences at NYU and the Law.” She recalled finding NYU Law to be a very supportive environment as a student—so much so that, after becoming a legal academic, she never left.

For Theane Evangelis ’03, a litigation partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, NYU Law had never seemed like a real possibility—in fact, her college career counsel advised her that she was better suited to public relations than to the law. “When I arrived here,” she said, “I felt I didn’t deserve to be here.” Nevertheless, she said, she quickly found that professors were open and supportive, even encouraging her to apply for clerkships, which eventually led to her clerking for US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

In addition to discussing their time as students at the Law School, other panelists spoke of their experiences in the legal field and the importance of role models in the profession. “When women see women as leaders, it makes a difference in how they see themselves, and their own abilities,” said Nancy Duff Campbell ’68, founder and president emerita of the National Women’s Law Center.

Jenny Yang ’96 emphasized the significance of seeing others— men or women—handling both work and personal duties. “It is really important to empower other people to talk about their family responsibilities,” said Yang, “When you’re in a position of leadership, it is important for people to see your whole self.” That kind of openness, argued Linda Gadsby ’92, vice president and deputy general counsel at Scholastic, can become an asset in one’s career: “I bring my whole self to work—my experiences as a woman, as a woman of color, as a person of color—and that gives me a unique perspective,” she said.  

At the same event, Law Women honored Birnbaum as 2018 Alumna of the Year. Birnbaum, known as “Queen of Torts” for her pioneering products liability defense work, spoke of the sexism she faced—and overcame—over the course of her legal career. When she started at the Law School, Birnbaum recalled, the wives of the faculty served a weekly tea in Greenberg Lounge. At the time, it was still assumed that both faculty and students would primarily be men. Looking around at the crowd of determined students, faculty, and alumnae that had gathered in the same space for the event, Birnbaum remarked, “We’re in good shape if this is the future of the law.”

Posted March 12, 2018; updated August 10, 2018 to reflect the addition of Professor Melissa Murray as BWLN faculty co-director.