Brooklyn court rule could bolster female, minority lawyers

- A federal judge in Brooklyn may be changing the course of the future for junior attorneys in his courtroom, which includes women and minority lawyers. This, after one of his colleagues found men continue dominating while women and minorities are doing much of the work. 

Sitting in a room full of men has been Sara Gozo's experience since graduating from law school. 

"I went into a large firm and there were more men than women in the firm," Gozo said. "Everything is done by seniority so it was always that 'Well, you're new, you'll do the deposition next time, you'll go to court next time."

Sara now owns her own firm, the Law Offices of Sara J. Gozo.

But this male-dominated scenario is a reality many women face in the law profession, according to Judge Shira Scheindlin. She is a retired U.S. district judge who presided over some high-profile cases. In David Floyd vs. City of New York, she ruled the NYPD's use of stop and frisk was unconstitutional. 

"I sat in court for 22 years and you see a whole room full of men and then maybe you see a junior woman sitting at the table and the guy is doing all the arguing and then he's saying, 'Can I have a moment your honor' and he's leaning over and asking the junior women," she said. "And finally, I at least when I was a judge, would say 'You know,' very politely 'maybe you would like to let her argue this motion since she seems to know all about it.'"

This year, Scheindlin, now at Stroock, Stroock and Lavan, led a three-month observational study in state and federal courtrooms throughout New York.

She drafted a questionnaire for judges based on who is in the courtroom and their level of involvement. Out of the 2,800 forms completed, she found only 19 percent of women are in lead roles in the private sector. That number doubles to 39 percent in the public sector.  

"Because often the junior person does the writing or prepares the witness but doesn't get an opportunity to speak because the senior person is the one who everybody thinks is going to do all the speaking," Scheindlin said. "So the junior people don't get an opportunity and this really works against women in particular, but also minorities."

Armed with this information, Judge Scheindlin met with senior U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who wanted to help make a difference moving forward and created a rule in his court. 

"Paraphrasing, it says 'Junior attorneys are encouraged to speak in court and I would consider allowing more than one attorney to argue if it gives junior attorneys an opportunity to speak in court,'" Scheindlin said. "He alludes to the fact there aren't enough trials these days so it's hard for junior attorneys to get the opportunities to speak."

"If you did all the prep work then you should be the one out there arguing the case because you know it better than anybody else in the court room," Gozo said.

Gozo has been there, once that junior attorney who did all the work. She said she is encouraged Judge Weinstein is paving a new path of opportunity for women and minorities. 

"It's nice to see a judge kind of putting that down so people can say, 'You know what, they shouldn't just be in the background -- they should also be in the forefront arguing those cases," Gozo said.

Judge Weinstein's rule is already in place in the Eastern District of New York. Now, two attorneys are allowed to argue a motion when usually just one would. Also, it could be the most knowledgeable lawyer, even if they are the junior attorney. 

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