By Janet Elliott
Staff Writer for The Texas Lawbook
As she rose through the ranks at litigation powerhouse Susman Godfrey, Ophelia Camiña saw too many of her female colleagues leaving the profession.
Many left because they were left behind on the path to partnership long enjoyed by male lawyers. They were not invited to the cozy business lunches and paneled office meetings where the men wooed and won new clients.
“I started seeing more and more of these women leaving and I started thinking, ‘What are we doing? Why aren’t we retaining these women?’ Camiña says. “It’s not just hiring them, you’ve got to retain them and you’ve got to promote them in order to saturate the ranks at the management level.”
Tired of studies that only highlighted the problem, Camiña had her own solution. She brought together two-dozen Dallas women lawyers, each practicing different types of law in separate offices, to a new networking group she named Act III.
What started out three years ago as monthly social gatherings to share referrals has morphed into a vital forum for the women to deal with their most important career issues, whether it is jumping to a different firm or running for judge.
“You are free in this group to talk about stuff that maybe you wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about in your office,” Camiña says. “We are kind of like a jury. Individuals can’t always solve a problem but when you put it to a group you find different resources.”
Maricela Moore found encouragement, financial backing and logistical help to run for an open trial bench, the 162nd Civil District Court. She emerged from a six-person field to a place in the July 31 runoff against Phyllis Lister Brown.
One of the founding members, A. Shonn Brown, gained moral support when several Act III friends showed up during a contentious trial.
“They were giving me the ‘atta girl’ from the gallery of the courtroom, and sent me notes throughout the process. The fact they were there out of their busy schedules did mean a lot,” says Brown.
Brown consulted with Camiña before she decided to leave her large law firm for litigation boutique Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail Shank. Others have discussed whether to change firms and one member was hired by a woman she met through the group.
It’s not all about work. The women recently met for a drink before watching the Dallas Bar Association’s Bar None performance of “The Girl with the File-Stamp Tattoo” featuring one of the members, Liza Farrow-Gillespie.
Camiña, who graduated from law school 30 years ago, is entering the third act of her life. But she wanted a group that contained a mixture of ages and law practices.
The result is mentoring that works not just from top to bottom, but from bottom to top. “I learn a lot from the younger women in this group,” says Camiña.
Laura O’Rourke, a senior associate in securities litigation at Baker & McKenzie, was a paralegal before she went to law school. She feels fortunate to have been member of Act III for about 18 months.
“Those of us with less experience or who are not a partner yet may find it more intimidating to try to network with women like Ophelia. The fact that she still wants to reach out and work with us speaks volumes to who she is as a person,” says O’Rourke.
Camiña is a sought-after litigator who represents business clients in high-stakes lawsuits, She won the eighth largest verdict in 2010, a $246 million jury verdict for Dillard’s, Inc. in a case involving fraud in the sale of software products.
About six years ago, while serving as a director for the State Bar of Texas, Camiña helped develop an extensive report on hiring, retaining and promoting women and minorities in the legal profession. The effort left her both discouraged and determined to change the dynamics.
“I can’t change the entire city or state or nation, but I can start with a small group,” she says.
The National Association of Women Lawyers annually tracks the progress of women lawyers at the nation’s 200 largest law firms. Last year, for the first time since the survey began in 2006, there was a decline in the number of women entering big-firm practice.
The survey found that women account for barely 15 percent of equity partners, a number that has been fixed at the same level for 20 years. The data also show that women partners are less likely than men to receive credit as rainmakers.
“Women traditionally have not been schooled in how to go out and solicit business,” Camiña says. “Especially as southern girls we were taught you don’t ask brashly for business.”
Women Hiring Women
That is slowly changing, as more women become judges and corporate counsels. They want to see women on the trial team and in the business meetings.
Act III member Alison Moore is a partner at Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons who defends lawyers and law firms in malpractice cases. She says she avoided women’s professional groups when she began her career in 1985.
“We tried very hard to fit into what was very much a man’s world. We wore our Joseph Banks suits and our floppy bows,” Moore says. “It has taken the younger generation to show us that may not be the right approach.”
Although Moore says she never felt held back because she is a woman, she didn’t always enjoy the conflict between billing hours and spending time with her three children. “I haven’t encouraged any of our kids, certainly not my daughter, towards law,” says Moore.
Barbara Kennedy, a commercial real estate partner at Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller, says Act III works because no one is asked to volunteer, make charitable contributions or present a seminar.
“I always encourage women to not just lean on women but to reach out to women. It’s time well spent,” she says.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career,” says Camiña. “What I want for the next generation, I want parity at the senior levels. I want to make sure they develop books of business that give them the right to sit at the management table because they earned it just like everybody else. When they do, then I can rest.”
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