Symposium Panelist Gail Deady, Women’s Rights Attorney: Lessons Learned in Practice

Gail Deady, a women’s rights legal fellow at the ACLU, will be a member of the second panel this coming Friday. This Panel “The Perfect Fit: Advantages (and Disadvantages of Different Practice Areas” will be in the W&L Moot Court Room from 3:15- 4:15. Please enjoy her thoughtful blog post on her expectations and lessons from her experiences thus far. 

Gail Deady

My decision to become a women’s rights attorney seemed like the only rational response to the world around me.  I knew from college and law school classes, as well as my own life experiences, that sex discrimination and gender inequality were alive and well in the United States.  I responded to this fact with a strong sense of unfairness and injustice.  I’ve met so many smart, capable women in my life whose intelligence, work ethic, and personal fortitude should make them fierce competitors for jobs, political positions—you name it.  But all the strength and intelligence in the world are often not enough to overcome the insidious discrimination women encounter every day.  I believed the best way I could fight this injustice was to become a women’s rights lawyer.

The recession unfortunately derailed my plans after graduation.  After working as a civil litigation associate at a law firm in Richmond, VA for almost four years, I had the great fortune to secure a three-year women’s rights fellowship at the ACLU of Virginia.  I envisioned myself arguing high-stakes appellate cases before the Fourth Circuit and working alongside dedicated feminist advocates to convince narrow-minded legislators to revoke sexist statutes—all without billable hour requirements!

Needless to say, my expectations were not exactly realistic.

Some of the stereotypes about women’s rights lawyers turned out to be true:  They tend to be smart, talented feminists who are dedicated to achieving women’s equality.  They litigate cases that impact women’s lives and fight against discriminatory legislation.  They often work for organizations that provide more leadership opportunities for women and support their efforts to have a career while raising a family.  These are among the reasons I am so grateful to work as a women’s rights attorney at the ACLU of Virginia.

But women’s rights work has its downsides, too.

It can be frustrating.  Legislation and case law grounded in sex stereotypes limit women’s legal remedies to combat sex discrimination.  This is particularly acute in Virginia, where prosecutors and legislators use attacks on women’s reproductive rights to score political points.  Further, gerrymandered legislative districts and political stalemates make it difficult, if not impossible, to use the legal system to affect substantial change.

It’s not a 9 to 5 job.  There are weeks when my hours rival those of a big law associate.  Cases that require immediate action to preserve a client’s right to have an abortion or to keep working after her boss fired her for getting pregnant take precedence over hitting the gym after work.  Testifying against a discriminatory dress code policy at a school board meeting in Southwest Virginia can keep you out until the wee hours of the morning.  When a client’s constitutional rights are at stake, it can be hard to leave the office in time for dinner.

It requires patience, and compromise.  Change does not come about quickly and you can’t do it alone.  Women’s rights advocates have the same end-goals, but often disagree about the means for achieving them.  Women’s rights advocates must also consider how a lawsuit or proposed statute will affect women from different racial groups, ethnicities, and income levels before taking action.  This can be a challenging process that often requires individual women’s rights advocates to check their egos at the door.

Women’s rights advocacy, like most legal careers, has pros and cons.  It is not the right fit for everyone, and working to achieve gender equality is not as glamorous as it sounds.  That being said, organizations that advocate for women’s rights—like the ACLU—are great places for female attorneys to achieve their personal and professional goals . . . and usually make it home for dinner.

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