Empower Her
by Julie Shannon; Photography by Kim Billingsley

Gender inequality in the workplace is a highly discussed topic around the country. This issue has been ongoing for years, but women not being treated equally compared to their counterparts is more prevalent today than ever.

The law firm of Stark & Stark recognizes this and therefore began their Women’s Initiative to acknowledge and promote the strengths their women attorneys bring to the field of law and their clients. With locations in Philadelphia and Yardley, Pa; and Lawrenceville, Marlton and Morristown N.J., the law firm is committed to recruiting qualified women attorneys in all fields of practice, helping them advance within their department as well as the firm, and to promote their leadership roles in all aspects, including the legal, business and nonprofit communities.

“The purpose is for us to get to know each other and talk about issues we’ve all faced and had to overcome, and to provide personal and professional development support to each other,” says Corinne Cooke, Chair of the firm’s Women’s Initiative.

Providing women guidance and mentorship, in addition to organizing a personal and professional development committee have been key elements during this initiative.

“We’ve created a mentoring program and paired partners and senior partners with some of the youngest associates and younger partners,” Cooke says. “They meet with their mentees on a regular basis to provide guidance and discuss any issues that the other person is facing and they get to know each other better. The committee organizes lectures geared toward women and brings in speakers who talk about how to project confidence.”

Projecting confidence is especially important in the legal industry because according to Cooke and attorney Maria Imbalzano, it’s a men dominated profession and has been that way for years, even with the same number of men and women in law school.

“34 years ago, my law school graduate class was 50 percent male and 50 percent female,” Imbalzano says. “Despite the fact that 50 percent of classes are women, law for some reason is still a man’s world.”

“The old boys club is very much alive and well, so this is our way of trying to tackle that and get around it,” Cooke adds. “Even though law schools are roughly equal with men and women, the women that graduate law school tend not to have jobs in the private sector or have jobs at law firms. They tend to go more toward the public, non-profit sector and I think part of that is the work-life balance. The balance is different for everyone, but especially challenging for women attorneys.”

Another challenging aspect for women is the perception that they are made out to be not as approachable as men just because they work differently.

“Women tend to keep their head down and work different from men,” attorney Carin O’Donnell says. “When we [women] are at our desk more, we are perceived as not approachable, but when men are at their desks, they are perceived as hard workers. We do have certain stereotypes that are different from men when really the way we’re handling things are equal. To what men are doing. Emotion is really passion; assertiveness is really leadership. It’s not that we’re not approachable because we’re at our desks all of the time-it’s because we’re working hard just like others in the firm.”

Imbalzano is chair of one of the four sub-committees in the initiative-the policy steering committee-in which she helped in adding some policies to the employee handbook that are important to female employees.

“We are picking up on issues we think are really important and bringing them to management,” Imbalzano says. “They are very aware through us what issues we think are important and what needs to be worked on. We have ongoing monthly meetings where we talk about what our issues are and how we can solve problems and issues we see. There are always going to be some sort of issues dealing with women in a man's world.”

One of those policies is if you’re an attorney and have been with the firm for four years or more, you get 12 weeks of continuing salary compensation benefits while on maternity or disability leave.

“As an attorney, even though we’re always working, it’s nice our firm is supporting our women lawyers in that respect and continuing their salary while they are on leave,” Imbalzano says.

Another policy they’ve added is if an attorney coming back from parental leave or disability, they can request a reduced work schedule for up to a year that doesn’t exceed more than 40 percent of their work week. Imbalzano says this is crucial to a woman’s career because partnership is something the majority of attorneys aim for, and having a child should not deter women from reaching their career goals.

“Every attorney wants to be a partner, but many times women will wonder, ‘is having a child going to affect my partnership?’” she says. “Having a reduced work schedule is a nice thing because we don’t want the fact that you’re having a child to affect that partnership track. We also want to acknowledge that even though you might be out for three months, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not a big deal when you’ve been here for a number of years. We want the firm to acknowledge that the women here, although we have to be treated a little bit differently because we’re women, we don’t want to be treated different when it comes to partnership track or leadership roles because we are here and we are dedicated. It’s nice to be able to have that bond with a child and have the firm recognized maybe for first year it’s important in a child’s life to work an adjusted schedule and be there a little bit more often; it’s a critical time.”

Stark & Stark supports their attorneys attending functions which help them engage each other, and having that support system with work, work-related activities and nonworking-related activities is extremely important to them succeed in all avenues of life.

“We support and share opportunities with each other,” attorney Rachel Stark says. “For example, we are active in the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce and their women’s group. We sponsor their events and all go together, rather than just one person. Because of that, we are engaging with each other a lot more.”

“We try to support each other as women,” Imbalzano says. “We all have our nonprofits we love to support, but what we do is, we let each other know when we’re having an event and ask one another, ‘can you support us? Can you come to the event?’ Whether it’s a walk, run, gala, or a fun fundraiser, the firm is behind us. But we as women, we want to make sure we are there for each other as well.”

Stark & Stark Attorneys at Law
For more information, visit Stark-Stark.com

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, April, 2017.