By Mary Westbrook
If you hop on Metro with Tracy-Gene Durkin (GW Law ’89), don’t be offended if another commuter’s shoes distract her from your conversation.
“I’ve spent a lot of time checking out other people’s feet,” says Durkin, a partner at Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein Fox who’s done substantial enforcement work for Rockport, a big shoe company now owned by Adidas. It’s a job that often sent her to store racks to make sure the company’s intellectual property wasn’t being infringed on. “I’m one of the few people who gets paid to shop,” she says with a smile.
That’s not the only elite group Durkin has been a part of. She’s also her firm’s first female partner and, following her election to the post last year, the first IP lawyer to head the Women’s Bar Association of DC, which is currently celebrating its 90th anniversary.
Bisnow on Business: Is your position at the Women’s Bar Association an honorific, or do they really put you to work?
I spend about 10 to 20 hours a week at it. It’s definitely a working position.
What are the group’s big challenges?
Staying relevant. There are lots of voluntary bar associations, but I see our bar as an opportunity for a woman, at a very early stage in her career, to take a leadership role in a bar in the city. It’s much more difficult to do that in a large organization like the DC Bar.
What’s the Association focused on now?
We began the “Pathways to Power” initiative last year to get people to talk about what’s happening with women in law. Why are only 17 or 18% of partners women? We talked a lot about the subtle, or benevolent, bias that still exists.
It usually happens in the context of making accommodations for women. For instance, a woman comes back from maternity leave and someone, thinking they’re doing her a favor, doesn’t put her on a big case.
What’s been the biggest surprise to come out of the initiative to you?
This whole subtle bias issue was eye-opening for me because I wasn't seeing gender bias day-to-day. There’s a perception that all bias is gone and women have equal opportunity. So why aren’t the numbers increasing at senior levels? There’s the argument that it’s just going to take time, but we’ve been hearing that for 20 years.
So what is the answer?
A lot revolves around rainmaking. Creating clients creates power in a law firm and most rainmakers are men, and they’re not always comfortable mentoring women.
C’mon, it’s 2007!
Yes, but even today women may not be selected to travel because maybe a male partner doesn’t want to explain to his wife that he’s traveling overnight with a female associate. We want to help women develop the skills to make their own business development opportunities, so in this instance, they would be the one planning the trip.
We’re taking the final conclusions from the initiative’s written report and taking it a step further to address diversity issues. There is a difference in the workplace between white women and women of color. We cannot assume our experiences are the same. We’re also starting educational programs in the law schools to help women prepare better for the legal profession. We plan to continue the initiative for at least the next two years.
Do you mentor anyone?
I lead the firm’s informal women’s group. We just get together quarterly for lunch. It’s evolved into other things, including a book club. Right now, we’re reading “Nice Women Don’t Get the Corner Office,” which I find funny because I have a corner office.
IP law isn’t known for its balance of men and women.
No, it’s not. I’m the first woman partner in my firm; there weren’t many women for me to look up to. That’s changing. More women began studying engineering, a pre-requisite to becoming a patent attorney, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Still, there’s a disparity. I’ve had my share of name-calling by opposing counsel—“Honey,” etc.—but I’ve never felt like I was held back at my firm. I’ve always felt fully supported.
What advice do you wish you’d been given at the start of your career?
When I started out, being a woman in a law firm that was mostly men, I left my personal life at the door. Now, I don’t do that. In fact, I think it’s really important for my colleagues to know I have a 6-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son because that impacts who I am, and what I bring into the office and to my profession.