Hilarie Bass: One of the U.S.’s best lawyers on her commitment to equality
She is one of the most distinguished attorneys in the U.S., with clients such as Goldman Sachs and Microsoft. But she's here now to speak about her commitment to equality. She will be one of the voices at the Santander WomenNOW Summit, the forum that is poised to turn Madrid this week into the European capital for women. ..
People call Hilarie Bass one of the best lawyers in the world. And within five minutes of meeting her, you begin to catch a glimpse as to why: when she speaks, a deep hush fills the room. Her ability to draw everyone's focus to her words is almost hypnotic. But when it’s time for her to yield the floor to someone else, an equally extraordinary phenomenon takes place: she looks at the other person as though at that moment there were no one else in the world, focusing all five senses on what they are saying. Her listening is truly active.
Her sense of justice
Her ability to seduce with her speech and her skill at listening are two of this lawyer's strengths; born in New York and raised in Miami, she is at the top of every list of best lawyers in the United States, including the Chambers USA Guide, The Best Lawyers of America, and a lengthy etcetera. Her list of clients includes names like Microsoft, Hilton and Goldman Sachs. And these are just part of a long list that has grown over almost four decades of work that has not gone unnoticed in the world of justice. This is largely due to how she has managed the hundreds of cases she has handled over time, leading her colleagues to call her “brilliant.” One of these was the case that resulted in the ruling that a prohibition in the state of Florida against homosexuals adopting was unconstitutional– the case that she says she is most proud of. “Knowing that you've been able to change the course of so many lives, by removing a grave injustice that lasted more than 20 years, is marvelous”, she says.
For that reason, when she was elected president of the American Bar Association, an organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice with the help of its 400,000 members, the profession applauded the decision. It portended a good term, given the acute sense of justice for which she is known – the same sense that led her to notice that, as she advanced at Greenberg Traurig (the prestigious law firm of which she became president), there were fewer women at her side. “That was when I realized that we did not have the same opportunities. From that point forward, I began to analyze why women did not have as much success in their professions as they wanted. The subject of implicit bias appears again and again at the root of the problem”, explains Bass, who will be one of the expert voices at the Santander WomenNOW Summit, an international event organized by Taller de Editores–Vocento, taking place this week (March 28, 29 and 30) in Madrid. For three days, the forum will bring together leaders from around the world to discuss the extraordinary challenges faced by women today.
Hilarie Bass shared how, once she became aware that she was practically an exception in her profession for having achieved positions of responsibility, she wanted to change things – starting with her own company, where almost 2,000 lawyers work in 39 offices around the world. She did this by encouraging the training of other female attorneys so that they could advance in their careers. In addition, when she got to the American Bar Association, she led a study to learn why many of her female colleagues left their positions at the last stage of their careers, after decades of work. The goal was to determine the reasons in order to focus on ways to change that outcome.
The results surprised a lot of people: It isn't the difficulties of finding balance between family and work lives that leads great professionals to leave their jobs. The response most often repeated among women who had made that decision was that they were tired of not playing on an even field. “After 20 years in the profession, the idea of having to prove their abilities and their commitment to the company every day is simply unacceptable. If we add to this the pay gap between men and women, which is often quite wide, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why would a woman remain in the profession,’” says the former president of the American Bar Association.
She is speaking about this subject now, just before our interview, in a room at the office of Thinking Heads, a consulting firm that specializes in positioning leaders. She is attending a lunch with professionals from various companies to talk about how to retain female talent. Because for several years, this has been her obsession: to help people at the head of small and mid-sized companies, as well as large corporations, understand that without women in positions of responsibility, companies cannot be competitive, because they are losing 50% of their talent.
Myths about women and work
According to Hilarie Bass
- As soon as a woman becomes a mother, she is less committed to her job.
- Women are more concerned about the balance between work and family life [sic] than men are.
- Time will solve the gender inequality problem on its own.
- I don't have gender prejudices.
- The financial compensation and promotion system at my workplace is objective.
- Women don't help each other.
Change the rules
But how do we do that? Can the rules of the game be changed? Bass is convinced, not only that it is completely feasible, but that not doing so would be crazy because it would run contrary to the companies' own interests. “The first and most important thing is to understand that the problem exists. In many companies, people believe that everything is based on an objective meritocracy, that workers are evaluated in a completely fair manner, but we know that that isn't true. If it were, there would not be such an enormous pay gap between men and women doing the same job. The second step is for the person directing the company to make a personal commitment to changing the situation, because otherwise “no one under them will do it.”
No bed of roses
When asked how she was able to overcome obstacles to reach the pinnacle of her profession, Bass recalls that her career hasn't all been a bed of roses. That includes when she reached the presidency of the prominent law firm that she left a few months back, after 37 years of work, to focus on the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion that she founded last year. “I've had to navigate roadblocks at each step along the way. Luckily, I have always focused on what I wanted to achieve, and was, fortunately, prepared to do all of the work necessary to accomplish it. But if I look back, I would not want other women to feel that they must always be the best just so that others would treat them fairly,” she says.
“We have all had some experience related to unfair treatment, because often it's a matter of unintentional discrimination. This is something that is almost imperceptible, such as, for example, when they tell you that your style is very aggressive or too direct. My immediate thought is: ‘You would not say that to a man.’ If you think carefully about this type of comment, you realize that maybe they aren't treating you the same as they would a male colleague. Even when the person treating you like this believes that men and women are truly equal”, she says.
“They say that we will achieve parity in 130 years, but that's crazy; we have to do something now.”
Listening to Hilarie Bass, it is easy to imagine that she was an unusual child, or a combative teenager fighting against everything she believed to be unjust. And we would not be wrong, because that is how she has been as far back as she can remember, when her childhood dream was to be a senator in order to have the chance to change things. That was why she graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Miami, from where she returned to her native city, New York.
While in the Big Apple, this distinguished lawyer was about to devote herself to another of her talents. “For three years, between the School of Political Science and the School of Law, I worked as an actress,” she remembers now with a smile. Multi-faceted, she had won a theater award at the institute when she arrived in New York, where she studied at Lee Strasberg's famous Actors Studio. She would go on to land several roles there, one of which had her appearing for several years in the soap opera Somerset.
However, fortunately for the law firm of Greenberg Traurig and its clients, Bass decided to change paths and become a lawyer, a job that she found fascinating. At the end of her first semester, she had to defend a case in a mock trial, and that experience gave her an idea of what she wanted to continue doing for the rest of her life.
Her extraordinary academic transcript drew the attention of one of the largest law firms in Florida, where in her second year of school she was interviewed for a summer intern position. The law firm was Greenberg Traurig. They hired her on the spot, and a short time later she met the man who would be her mentor: Mel Greenberg, a prestigious attorney who was also one of the law firm's three founders.
Remembering it now, Bass says that it was a stroke of luck for her to have someone like Greenberg notice her talent. But she believes that her path would not have been much different if the person working alongside her during the first years of her career had been a woman. “In that situation, I don't believe that gender was as important as who he was. This was one of the top partners at a highly respected law firm, someone able to achieve everything he set his mind to and who also had a great personality. For Mel Greenberg to encourage me, even when everything was rough, and to tell me that I could handle it, to keep working because I had a chance, that helped me so much. It didn't matter at all to him that I was a woman; he just wanted to mentor someone that he thought had qualities, regardless of their sex. If he believed that you could make it, he took you under his wing.”
That was how she began a career that would lead to her being famous across the country, something that came as no surprise to those who knew her from her childhood. Especially her mother, who is very proud of her work. “My mother would have wanted to get a degree. But she had four children and she lived in a time when it was highly atypical for the mother of a family to go to school. In fact, it was also not very common for her to work outside the home. She did so sporadically, but above all she devoted herself to educating us. To a large degree, I owe her for the fact that I went to school and achieved certain accomplishments, because the education that we receive at home when we are children is essential.”
Years later, Hilarie Bass would be the one trying to instill this same education in her own daughter, and now she works so that not only she, but also the next generations, can enjoy a completely different situation in the workplace, even though the outlook may not be very promising. “I read a study that said that, at the current pace, we will achieve gender parity in 2150, within 130 years. That's crazy. We have to do something now to advance much more quickly. Hard? Maybe, but also possible”.
The future of women is now
Nobel Prize Winner Paz Shirin Ebadi, activist Bianca Jagger, attorney Hilarie Bass and Vice-President of the European Parliament Evelyne Gebhardt are among the more than 50 representatives who will come together at the Museo Reina Sofía on March 28-30 in the Santander WomenNOW Summit, the forum on women launched by Taller de Editores–Vocento. More information: ›› www.womennow.es