Attorney at Law Magazine Palm Beach Publisher Rhenne Leon sat down with Justice Barbara J. Pariente to discuss how the legal profession has changed for women and mentors that helped her in her career.
AALM: How has the legal profession changed for women during your career?
Pariente: In 1973, when I became a lawyer, less than one in 20 lawyers were women. I oft en felt like I was seen as an intruder in an all-male club! Today, approximately 38 percent of the members of The Florida Bar are female. In those days there had never been a woman on the Supreme Court of the United States, on the Supreme Court of Florida or the state’s appellate courts and only a handful of women sat as trial court judges – and those were mostly on municipal or county courts. There were few, if any, female partners in major firms and women were not considered fit to be trial lawyers. Obviously, much has changed over the last 43 years.
Now, I am one of two women on the Supreme Court of Florida. My colleague Justice Peggy Quince and I are only the second and third women ever appointed to the Supreme Court of Florida and none of the appointees since 1998 have been women. And we know that women are still experiencing discrimination in both subtle and not so subtle ways.
According to a recent survey conducted by the young lawyers section of the Florida Bar, 21 percent of women reported that they felt they were not being paid equally to men. According to almost all surveys women do not enjoy the opportunities for advancement that men do. In fact, 43 percent of women reported that they had experienced some form of gender bias in their careers. And legal employers have not found ways to accommodate the inescapable fact that women are the primary caregivers for their children and struggle more than men to achieve a work-life balance. Unfortunately, women, more than men, also find themselves victims of sexual harassment and experience difficulties in advancing to positions of power.
While, no one considers it an oddity when they see a female lawyer or judge – especially since women have been far more represented in important government positions such as assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders – the bottom line is that women still do not hold leadership positions in proportion to their membership in the Florida Bar.
AALM: What accomplishment in your legal career are you the proudest of achieving?
Pariente: I do not know that I could name one accomplishment over my legal career, especially since I have now been in a judicial position for the past 23 years! I am proud that as a lawyer I was respected as someone whose word could be counted on both with my adversaries and with the judges I appeared before. I am proud that in each case I handled, I dedicated my full efforts and fought for my clients’ rights to be vindicated. I am especially proud that since becoming a justice I have advocated for improving methods for handling cases involving children and families, and have championed the need for children’s voices to be heard when they enter the judicial system. And of course, there are numerous judicial opinions that have been significant over the course of my judicial career but I will leave others to assess what opinions will be part of my legacy.
AALM: What do you believe is the most serious issue facing the legal profession today?
Pariente: Probably the most serious problem is the attempts by outside forces to mold the judiciary in a particular ideological direction and efforts to influence court decisions by controlling who is appointed. The influx of money into judicial races, even in merit retention races is a serious problem.
This concern was highlighted aft er two colleagues and I were the focus of an antimerit retention campaign sponsored by groups who disagreed with some of our decisions. Fortunately, voters saw the move as politically motivated and we were retained by considerable percentages. But we cannot be complacent. It is critical that all lawyers and judges do their best to educate our citizens. The Florida Bar has done an outstanding job in its program, The Vote’s in Your Court, and their Benchmarks civic education program.
Additionally, the access to justice gap is of great concern. While we have more and more lawyers in Florida, over 80 percent of individuals cannot afford one and many litigants go to court unrepresented. I fear that we in the legal profession are pricing ourselves out of the marketplace as consumers increasingly turn to other alternatives such as Internet-based companies for self-help solutions. The Florida Bar has been studying this issue for the past several years under the heading of Vision 2016. The Commission on Access to Justice, chaired by Chief Justice Labarga, and its stellar membership is focusing specifically on this critical issue. As a profession we must be willing to embrace innovation and explore ways to increase affordability without changing the essential nature of the profession. That is a major challenge.
AALM: What advice would you give to your grandchildren regarding how to succeed in the legal profession in Florida during the 21st century?
Pariente: I would begin by telling them that a career in the legal profession should be considered only for the right reasons and that the profession is not for everyone. They should never consider a career in law as a way to make money but should consider the law as a helping profession and a way to become a problem solver. Unfortunately, our legal profession is becoming overcrowded and I fear that too many become frustrated with their career prospects. My oldest grandson is contemplating applying to law school and my husband and I have advised him that he should strongly consider a state school because we have seen too many young lawyers emerge from law school with crushing debt. I also would encourage my grandchildren to consider taking time aft er college to work and make sure that law school is the right choice for them. Both of our sons waited to go to law school until they had worked at various jobs first. Finally, I would urge them to consider all the good that lawyers can do in helping those less fortunate but also to realize that our legal profession will look very different in 50 years than it does today.
AALM: What plans do you have for your retirement?
Pariente: Although that date is more than two years off(yes, I am counting), I hope to take time to travel more, spend more time with my husband, and spend more time with my children and grandchildren.
But I do hope to continue my advocacy in several important areas, including my involvement in promoting a fair and impartial judiciary through the National Association of Women Judges’ Informed Voters Project, which educates the public about the dangers of the attempts of special interest groups to influence court decisions by working for the appointment or the removal of judges based on his or her ideology rather than his or her legal qualifications.
I especially hope to continue advocacy for our most vulnerable children – those who end up in the foster care system – by emphasizing the need for early education and quality child care for all children under the age of 5. There is a marvelous initiative entitled the, First 1,000 Days, and I think that any investment in our youngest children will pay off in so many ways over their lifetime and would be a wise investment in preventing the need for intervention later in life.
I also hope to continue to support access to justice for those who cannot afford legal services and help to find ways to increase funding that has been lost for legal aid societies, which are essential to the functioning of our justice system. I was always proud to be a board member of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County under the longtime leadership of Bob Bertisch. If justice is not accessible or affordable we really cannot hope to realize our goal of equal justice for all.
And finally (although there are probably more) I would like to continue to emphasize the need for school-justice partnerships where we assist schools in finding ways to keep children in school rather than expelling them or arresting them, which only leads to a downward spiral. We have made great strides in Palm Beach County over the past four years and there are many similar initiatives occurring around the state.
AALM: Every successful person has mentors who assisted him or her on their way to success. Please name a few of yours.
Pariente: Four individuals come to mind. First of all Rosemary Barkett, who was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Florida and a friend of mine from the early years in Palm Beach County. She helped by example. She was a great trial lawyer, a wonderful trial judge, and an accomplished and passionate appellate judge both on the state and federal benches.
Second is my husband of 30 years, Fred Hazouri, who was one of the best trial lawyers I ever observed and is always able to analyze an issue clearly and concisely. He has now retired as a judge and has become a successful mediator and puts all the skills he has acquired into this new career. He helped me by giving me the confidence to know that I could succeed, helped me not to be distracted by those who might not agree with my positions, and has been a constant cheerleader. He too was a mentor by example.
Third is my former partner Louis Silber who remains a dear friend to this day. I have never seen anyone work more intensely than Louis and he helped encourage me to do my best and never give up. Louis has devoted himself to important causes in the community and has never lost his passion to fight for the underdog. He is a first-rate lawyer and zealous advocate.
Lastly is my dear friend and great trial lawyer Phil Freidin. Phil is a successful lawyer but what has always amazed me is his gift for being able to solve problems and his generosity in helping others in need of mentoring or advice. He recognizes causes that are important and does not hesitate to immerse himself in efforts to improve the legal profession and the judiciary.