Talking with ... Linda Varrenti Hernandez

Executive says communication, understanding can beat bias in legal field

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A survey released in September 2006 by the Allegheny County Bar Association showed the majority of women lawyers were no better off in pay and job satisfaction than they were 15 years earlier.

Linda Varrenti Hernandez has been charged with changing those statistics.

As the bar association's first gender equality coordinator, Ms. Hernandez will analyze the survey's findings and work with the bar's Gender Equality Task Force to recommend ways to shrink the gender gap.

She became a lawyer after two decades spent as a homemaker raising three daughters. Besides practicing corporate law for Downtown firm Dickie McCamey, she spent a year as a lawyer-on-loan for Neighborhood Legal Services, where she represented low-income individuals and clients of all incomes in protection-from-abuse cases.

Q: How did you land in this new position?

Linda Varrenti Hernandez

Job: Gender equality coordinator, Allegheny County Bar Association.

Age: 56

Hometown: Bloomfield; resides in Upper St. Clair

Education: Bachelor of arts in political science, history and business, West Virginia University, 1981; Duquesne University School of Law, 2001.

Career: 1994-96: sales, Worldview Travel; 1996-2001: sales, Ponzio International Travel; 2001-07: associate, law firm Dickie McCamey; October 2004-05: lawyer on loan to Neighborhood Legal Services; July 2007-present: gender equality coordinator, Allegheny County Bar Association and of counsel, Dickie McCamey.


Listen In:

Linda Varrenti Hernandez talks with PG reporter Joyce Gannon.

Goals for resolving gender differences between men and women attorneys.

Is work-life balance an issue for women in law firms?


A:

The results of the survey came back and created certain questions. Because we have such a forward-thinking bar association, they said: "We just can't have this survey. We have to deal with the issues that the survey brings forward." So they formed the Gender Equality Task Force and I became part of the best practices subcommittee.

It became apparent this was too big a project for people to do on a volunteer basis. They needed one person to issue a report and go forward. I've always felt strongly about this issue. But more importantly, I feel very strongly about the equity issue for all people. The underrepresented in any way, shape or form seem to me that they need a voice.

Q: What are your goals as gender equality coordinator?

A: I do not see myself as the leader. I see myself as the person through whom all the ideas will flow. Kind of a gatekeeper because that's what they needed. But the ideas, the soul of this, are coming from so many sources. It's not me.

Certainly what the survey said was very disheartening. However, I'm an optimist and I always try to be very affirming. One of the things the task force came up with is to research best practices in the legal profession. So my very shortest-term goal is to compile a report based on the work of the four task force subcommittees and outline a kind of handprint of what needs to be done. We want to make the best practices known to the widest audience we can.

It's important to realize Pittsburgh isn't alone in this struggle. There have been studies done in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Texas, but they don't have a coordinator.

Q: What are some of the specific things that need to be addressed to improve pay and overall conditions for female lawyers?

A: A sound mentoring program seems to be very, very critical. A mentoring program that's sincere. And it must be evaluated. If it's never re-evaluated, it doesn't hold much water. The mentors have to be trained. Is there a difference between mentoring men and women? That's something we're absolutely determined to find out and then pass those skills along. This isn't a "Let's go to lunch twice a year" program. This is real hands-on. ...

Pay equity is certainly a hot-button issue. It seems to me the biggest issue there is transparency. If people know how they're going to be judged, and then are in fact judged that way, and all people of equal footing are judged the same way, then there doesn't seem to be a lot of criticism about the process.

Certainly another is work-life balance. We talk a lot about part time and flex time and sharing work. However, if you do those things and they are stigmatized in your group, then they're not really helping. What we would like to see is where people can take advantage of those kinds of programs and still be successful in their organizations. ...

And women do not seem to have as many opportunities to be rainmakers [who bring in new business] nor are they trained to be. ... I don't think the law schools deal with it. Law schools and women in law schools are going to be key in making these changes because both women and men in law school are not quite prepared for what awaits them. They're prepared from a substantive point of view. They understand the law. But there's a lot more to being a lawyer, like mentoring, rainmaking.

They don't understand the dynamic of a group in which women are generally not powerful. I went to law school, and everybody treated me as an equal. And then sometimes you get in situations where you're not treated as an equal, and it's a little bit shocking.

Q: Is the Pittsburgh law firm culture going to be a tough sell for gender equality because it's so male-dominated at the top?

A: I certainly hope not. I don't think they're basically bad people. I think it's just a lack of communication frankly, and understanding. ...

I don't think it's because anyone's malicious. I just think it's that people haven't spent the time or energy to try and get to know what the problem is. And it's important because if you look from a business point of view, most legal entities are profit-making systems. Female lawyers are leaving this profession in droves. If you hire a female lawyer and spend five years training her, and you pay her salary for five years, and she leaves after five years, your legal entity has lost an enormous amount of money.

Q: Is some of the problem rooted in the fact that society still considers women to be the primary family caretakers?

A: I think that is a societal issue. However, in my optimism I believe those things -- child raising and taking care of elderly parents -- are enormously valuable and they should not disallow women from being lawyers. I'm convinced there's a way to do it.

Q: You became a lawyer after your children were grown. What motivated you?

A: I always wanted to be a lawyer. When I was in college, I worked with the Western Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group and I got to meet Ralph Nader and his cadre of lawyers. I was just so impressed by what I thought was very noble work. He told me that if you think a system is flawed or has a problem, you shouldn't blow it up. You should learn everything you can about the system and change it from the inside out.

While I was raising the girls (now ages 32, 29 and 27), it was never the right time to go to law school. I had a very traditional marriage (to William Hernandez, chief financial officer, PPG Industries Inc.) We were in West Virginia, Chicago, Detroit, then back to Chicago for my husband's job.

And then we came back here and I started to work in travel and Duquesne's law school was doing a big advertising effort for a part-time day program. I thought, "You're so old. You'd be crazy to do this." But I kept hearing the ad on the radio and I said to God one day, "If I hear that stupid ad one more time I'll apply." And I pushed the button on the radio and the ad was on the next station I went to. Fine. I applied but I didn't tell anybody because if I didn't get in, I'd be humiliated.

My husband was very supportive. My daughters were thrilled. My oldest daughter and I graduated from law school the same year. It kind of shook things up. I was working, going to school and still doing everything I did at home and for the girls. You know, you're a daughter, a sister, everything else.

But I did it.


Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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