Written by Ashley Bennett Jones, Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason LLP
but that’s exactly what she is trying to change. We have all heard it over and over. It is undeniable that there is a significant gap between men and women who achieve equity partner status in the legal field. In an age where approximately 47% of all law students are women, and where women comprise 45% of all associates practicing in the field, it is disappointing at best to learn that women represent a mere 15% of equity partners in the largest firms in the United States. The numbers tell the story: law schools are good at recruiting women, and law firms have made an increased effort over the past 15 years to hire women (although recent numbers are declining), but firms still struggle to retain women and women continue to advance more slowly at their firms than their male counterparts.
This is a story that Act III founder Ophelia Camiña experienced firsthand. As an extremely successful trial lawyer by any measure (just take a look at the "wins" on her bio page), Ophelia saw how she was in the minority of her female peers. Regrettably, she witnessed many capable women leave the practice of law after slowly falling behind on the management track. In Ophelia's view there were, and still are, many factors at play that cause this result. Key among them is women not gaining access to real client development opportunities: the face-to-face meetings with clients and potential clients where personal relationships are forged and business is won. This is paired with what she calls the "hurdle years" during which many women attempt to juggle raising young children and family life, while their profession is simultaneously at a point where they must prove their value and commitment to their firm to advance on the management track. After years of seeing these problems perpetuate, and specifically after being discouraged by the results of an extensive report on the issue that she helped develop while serving as director for the State Bar of Texas, Ophelia decided to take her own experiences and help create a solution. The result, Act III.
Act III is what popular culture might call a "Stiletto Network" for female attorneys. But whatever you call it, Ophelia's intent was to develop a cross-mentoring and networking group for female attorneys in the Dallas area. The women come together at informal monthly meetings to discuss, and tackle, a myriad of issues ranging from personal to professional. In short, although she may only be able to affect a relatively small group of female attorneys, her personal goal and that of the group is to support other women and help promote them in the field. To that end, Act III is comprised of approximately 24 women, personally chosen by Ophelia herself. By design, their ages, career levels, and practice areas vary. An important aspect of this is Ophelia's selection process whereby no two women in Act III are from the same firm. This structure attempts to ensure that the group provides an open forum where frank conversation can occur without fear of negative career consequences.
Perhaps at the top of the list is facilitating business development, which is so often the primary impediment to a female lawyer's career advancement. Not only do the women network with each other, but the broad spectrum of members and their respective contact lists opens up a unique resource for those looking to make introductions and expand their own client base. As Ophelia explains, to really make a change in the legal field more women must be placed in leadership positions. And to get there, those women must have their own books of business. That’s where Act III comes in, by aiding each other in developing business and providing referrals. But it is much more than that.
In addition, there is a truly personal mentorship and support aspect to the group. I witnessed this in just my first meeting with Ophelia. As I was about six-months pregnant with my second child, admittedly Ophelia and I spent a good portion of her interview discussing the particular challenges that "attorney-moms" face and the rewards that can go along with it. She explained some of the choices she and her husband, also a full-time practicing attorney, made after the birth of their twins to facilitate her dual roles, and how her parenting challenges have evolved as have the demands of her career. Through this small window into her experiences, I could see the personal benefit of hearing about how other women have faced many of the same situations that I currently am addressing. In her words, "your kids always come first." But she admits that facing that reality while keeping your career on track requires resources and support. She believes the lack of those things is often the reason female attorneys leave the profession. As children are a common denominator for most women in Act III, however, the group helps provide those much needed resources and support to its members.
And the resources and support provided by Act III go much further than this. Ophelia believes women bring many qualities to the table that if tapped into can give them an advantage in their legal career. For example, she believes women tend to be more trusted by jurors, make excellent judges, and are often a good fit for in-house opportunities. Helping to identify such traits in, and opportunities for, other Act III members is another important mentoring and support aspect of the group. At the bottom of it all, Act III continues to be a valuable endeavor because not only are these women business associates, they have become friends. This is exemplified in their actions towards one another. They show up to support each other in professional endeavors such as attending a member's big trial. They frequently exchange emails on current issues affecting the State and Dallas Bar or other relevant legal topics to which they have a personal connection. They have a girls’ night out to attend the Dallas Bar Association's Bar None play in which an Act III member is participating. They work together to track down key in-house legal contacts for each other. Or they meet for a drink to toast each other’s personal or professional achievements. Watch out - the women of Act III are making a real difference.