The new Virginia Women Attorneys Association's first newsletter spells out the problem in no uncertain terms: "The legal profession, which touts the individual rights of so many and which promotes the interests, rights and advancement of women in other professions, needs to examine its own conduct."
Wild-eyed feminist lawyers roaming the Virginia countryside? Hardly. But they are determined to make sure women attorneys become a force in Virginia.
"We are not setting up to oppose the established bar, but to work with it," says co-chairperson Janis McDonald, an attorney in private practice in Alexandria.
The problem, she says is that the 11,000-member Virginia State Bar, to which all lawyers who want to practice in Virginia must belong, conducts business as an "old boys' club," rarely paying heed to the women who now make up about 10 percent of the membership.
Despite that percentage, only three of the 277 judgeships in Virginia are filled by women. None of th 108 cicuit court judges is a woman, the newsletter says, and there are no women on the Virginia Supreme Court. At the federal level, only one of the 34 federal judges in Virginia is a woman.
In the Virginia bar itself, all 56 member of the bar council and its top positions are men.
McDonald and other organizers don't feel women have been subjected to malicious sexism or to the formal exclusion of years ago, which led to the formation of women's bar groups in the District of Columbia and Maryland. Comments from the bench such as, "so nice to have the lovely ladies" are not malicious, McDonald says. "I know they [judges] don't mean any harm."
What women lawyers have confronted is more a paternalistic condescension or a tradition of benign neglect, the organizers say, but in terms of statistics, the results of that tradition are clear.
The new group wants to change those numbers, and the male-dominated Virginia bar, by urging women to run for bar offices, informing them of bar vacancies and lobbying for more women judges.
The number of women lawyers in Virginia, McDonald estimates, jumped from about 150 some 10 years ago to about 1,000 now. A recent study showed that the surge is continuing both in Virginia and across the country. About one-third of all law students are now women.
Outgoing bar president James C. Roberts, whom the women activists credit with appointing more women to bar committee positions, said the bar probably had some "catching up" to do, given the vast increase in the number of women lawyers in the state.
The organizers think a lot of women attorneys agree wholeheartedly with Roberts. They say the response to their solicitation -- more than 80 women have signed up already -- has been enthusiastic.
And they say the bar leadership has been quite supportive of their efforts, particularly Sam Clifton, VSB executive director.
Clifton said last week that he has helped the organizers set up meetings and compile lists of women lawyers' names.
Proving Virginia is still Virginia, Clifton said, "I'm not sure what the girls are up to, [but] I'll help them in whatever way I can."