Nancy Erika Smith makes it very clear: She doesn't want to be elected as the second vice president of the New Jersey Bar Association because she's a woman.
Smith feels it's easy to make her case. After all, she has argued cases at both the U.S. Supreme Court and the New Jersey Supreme Court and practiced law for more than 30 years.
But like it or not, the partner in the employment law firm Smith Mullin, in Montclair, finds herself in the middle of a debate about diversity in the association.
Smith, who is running in a special election to fill the seat of second vice president, would be in line to become president in 2016 should she win when voting ends July 1. Should she lose, the seven-member board would be filled with white men, and a woman would not be able to rise to president for at least six years.
"This is not about identity politics and, 'Vote for me, because I'm a woman,'" she said. "I'm qualified because I'm a leader among women lawyers."
And there are plenty of female lawyers: Nearly half of all law school graduates this year will be women, and roughly a third of the bar association's 18,000 members are female. They just aren't in position of leadership.
The most recent female president of the bar, Susan Feeney, of McCarter & English, served from May 2011 to May 2012.
Ralph Lamparello, the president of the bar association, said the group has recognized the problem. In fact, the nominating committee was expanded from seven to 15 members several years ago in an effort to promote diversity — but he said it didn't work.
"Simply stated, we have failed," he said.
Lamparello said he will form a committee "to create a policy manual that will guide (bar association) committees, including the nominating committee."
He wants to see a policy manual adopted that instructs the nominating committee to consider diversity when appointing officers. "People need to start thinking about the bar as a whole, and not thinking about their own personal self interest," he said.
But Smith's opponent, Thomas Prol, said he fits the bill for diversity, too. He was the first openly gay officer of the bar association before a residency issue sidelined him earlier this year; he quit his New York job in June to return to New Jersey and run for the bar association.
Prol argued his victory would advance the cause of diversity.
"I'm not just another man; I'm the first openly gay officer of the association," he said, adding that if not for the residency issue, he'd still be an officer, on track to become president.
Prol, who is the attorney for the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority and also is in private practice as a solo attorney, was appointed a bar association trustee in 2006. In 2012, the nominating committee named him secretary — the first rung in the officer ladder that in six years would have led him to become president.
"This was an important milestone in the bar's recognition of the need for diversity in its leadership," he said.
The bar association trustee board has one seat that must be filled by a woman. An election also is underway for that seat between candidates Christine Amalfe, chair of the employment and labor law department at Gibbons and a member of the firm's executive committee, and Christina Vassiliou Harvey, of the Freehold law firm Lomurro, Davison, Eastman & Munoz. Currently, nine of the 47 trustees are women.
Earlier this month, Gibbons hosted a reception in support of Smith and Amalfe.
Patrick Dunican, chairman and managing partner of Gibbons, said the election of Smith and Amalfe would raise the profile of two well-known attorneys who have dedicated their careers to the advancement of women in the profession.
Both Amalfe and Harvey said if elected, they'll strive to raise the profile of women lawyers in the association.
"I'm a firm believer in the benefits lawyers can gain by being involved" in the association, Amalfe said. "The men who are involved in the bar association tend to be business generators, and a lot of their business generation comes from the people they meet as a result of bar association activities."
Harvey said this is an issue.
"We need to encourage women to take more active roles in the bar association, so that when they go before the nominating committee they can be selected based on their leadership and experience," she said.
As chair of the bar association's young lawyers division, she makes sure all the meetings aren't at night, "so women don't have to chose between networking and their families."
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