International Women’s Day – Choose to Challenge

on Topics: Company | Future Law | Legal Tech

International Women’s Day – Choose to Challenge

The 2021 theme for International Women’ Day is #ChooseToChallenge, and as part of this theme we’re reminded that “from challenge comes change.”

From challenging gender parity in law firms, to challenging the lack of funding for women in the legal tech space, to challenging inequalities inherent in the justice system, choosing to challenge what is and has been the status quo is necessary to see change in the legal industry. 

Last year, we looked at gender equality as a business issue in law and how the #EachForEqual theme spoke to the need for championing and celebrating the role of women in the workplace and beyond. Now, we are turning to highlight the women in law and legal tech who have made the choice to challenge the norms and traditions of the legal profession.

Influencers Choosing to Challenge

Over the last year, we’ve been fortunate enough to sit down and hear from several women through our UniCourt Influencer Q&A series who are making significant strides in their own respective segments of the legal industry. 

The women we interviewed represent leaders in legal tech, knowledge management, legal consumer advocacy, and court reform, and we are happy to share with you some of their insightful words of wisdom. 

Sonja Ebron, CEO and Co-Founder of Courtroom5:

“My advice for anyone who wants to work in legal tech is the same, regardless of gender. And that is, if you see something broken that you can help fix, accept the obligation to help fix it. Brokenness is not hard to find in the justice system, so you don’t have to look hard. 

For women in particular, we should strive to remember that we are socialized to understate our accomplishments and our capabilities. So often when women are looking for partners and funding to fix something, we fail to correct for that socialization. 

To succeed, we have to think more boldly and express ourselves more boldly than our gender training allows. That training forces us to assume we can do more than we think we can, because in reality, we usually can.”

Amanda Brown, Executive Director of Lagniappe Law Lab:

“I truly think 2021 has the capacity to be one of the biggest years for access to justice yet. COVID-19 exposed the deficiencies in our system’s technology abilities, and a scramble to implement technology exposed the deficiencies in the system overall. 

This brought a lot of players to the table that previously played the role of active impeder or tacit endorser of access to justice efforts. It seems like we may finally have an audience that’s not just willing to listen to what we have to say, but also help us execute.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the biggest victory of 2021 wouldn’t be more technology, more service innovations, or even more regulatory reform experiments across the country. Instead, the real prize is a truly collaborative justice system. From there, I have confidence that things that are genuinely in the best interest of justice will have a fighting chance.”

Jean O’Grady, Editor of Dewey B Strategic:

“I became a blogger because most of the legal tech bloggers were men and librarians weren’t getting the credit they deserved for driving innovation in law firms. So that was a key mission of Dewey B Strategic – which is a play on words using the name of the founder of American Librarianship, Melville Dewey, and asking are we strategic? (and my answer is a resounding “yes”).

Early in my career I heard the phrase: “Sometimes it’s better to seek forgiveness than permission.” In my first library director position, I found myself in a situation where there was an opportunity to transition away from “dumb” dedicated research terminals (Lexis Ubiq and Westlaw Walt) and replace them with IBM PCs. 

The PCs would allow us to add workflow software and a wider range of research platforms. The Director of IT refused to approve the PCs so I went above him. He was furious with me for a few months, but he later admitted that I had made the right decision.”

Natalie Anne Knowlton, Director of Special Projects for IAALS:

“At the risk of waxing poetic about American history, I’d suggest that the system is working for the consumers for whom it was initially built—that’s just not most of the country today. I recently published a piece through IAALS’ Blog, where I talk about the reality that the system was erected when African Americans were considered property and women had few rights. 

I don’t think it’s possible to divorce this historical reality from the contours of our current access to justice crisis. The system just wasn’t built for many of the people who need it today. And while the justice system is fair and impartial in theory, we know these ideals have yet to be enforced in practice. 

I raise all this to suggest that we have some serious systemic issues to grapple with if we are going to meaningfully address the A2J gap, including radical system redesign involving far more diverse leaders than we have in the industry now.”

Shannon Salter, Chair of the Civil Resolution Tribunal:

“If you are creative, committed, and curious, it doesn’t take much technology or infrastructure for courts and tribunals to make significant changes in the lives of everyday people. 

I always encourage courts, tribunals, and other justice system actors to start tomorrow. Start by asking questions of the people you serve. Start user testing forms and processes. Become as curious and as humble as possible about the answers and results. 

The biggest impediment to reforming the civil justice system is cultural, not logistical. If we adopt a relentless curiosity about how we could design better systems, there is a tremendous potential to make radical change for the better, using many of the tools and resources we already have.”

Being the Change

Choosing to challenge often requires being the change, setting the tone, and moving the conversation forward with action.

Whether it’s challenging gender parity head on in the legal industry or gender inequalities common across industries when it comes to lack of access to capital for diverse startups, “[i]t’s really important to walk the walk,” says Kristen Sonday, Co-Founder and COO of justice tech company Paladin.  

To change the equation and provide opportunities for diverse startups to get access to early stage capital, Sonday, along with five other partners, launched the venture fund LongJump, a first-check venture fund focused on investing in underrepresented ideas and founders. 

In the opening line of her announcement for LongJump, Sonday recounts that “[a]s a Latina founder of a social impact company, raising VC money hasn’t exactly been easy.” 

For areas without the same level of access to early stage capital as the coasts, she explains that there’s an “oversized impact on underrepresented founders’ ability to get their startups off the ground” that perpetuates the cycle of lack of access to capital by “skewing survivorship bias and greatly affecting what ‘success’ looks like.” 

Though LongJump won’t focus on any specific industries, Sonday shared with Bob Ambrogi that “she hopes that legal tech and justice tech companies will apply” and that LongJump’s model “inspires others in legal to up their commitment to diverse and female founders.”

There is a continuous and growing need for change, and change agents, in the legal industry to see progress for gender inclusivity in terms of access to capital, partnership and title promotions, speaking opportunities, and so much more.  

When we’re confronted with injustice, when we see things that are broken (or that are working the way they were designed to diminish diversity), the International Women’s Day theme reminds us of the choices we can make to be the change:

  • We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. 
  • We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. 
  • We can all help create an inclusive world.

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