By Dien Le

Women Lawyers of Ventura County (WLVC) was established around 1982-1983 and its first president was Melodie Kleiman, followed by a long line of distinguished presidents, including Carmen Ramírez, Judge Tari Cody, Tina Rasnow, Ricarda Bennett, Karen Darnall, Mary Sullivan, Monique Hill, Michelle Erich, Susana Goytia-Miller, Mindy McQueen, and current president Jill Friedman. According to Tina, WLVC at its inception was an organization devoted to advancing women’s rights and addressing issues such as equal pay, reproductive rights and diversity in the legal profession. In the early years, WLVC members (approximately 20 or so women) met quarterly as an informal group to socialize, network and discuss their careers and various legal issues. As more women entered the profession and the group became larger and more organized, they would meet more regularly, publish newsletters, host meet and greet mixers with other groups and have events with guest speakers such as California Supreme Court Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Kathryn Werdegar. During Tina’s administration (1990-1992), WLVC became active and affiliated with the California Women Lawyers (CWL) by participating on committees and joining in amicus briefs on cases dealing with women’s and children’s rights.

During Ricarda’s presidency (1993-1995), WLVC became a founding member of the Women’s Legacy Fund, which is administered by the Ventura County Community Foundation. The Fund provides grants to community groups and projects that support women’s causes. Today, a WLVC representative maintains a seat on the Fund’s committee. WLVC also holds the distinction of being the only bar organization from Ventura County that currently sends a delegation to the annual Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations.

During the years 2008-2011 when WLVC was less active, the only person willing to keep things going was Jodi Prior, who served as president for three years without any assistance from board members. Jodi’s main focus was maintaining the Annual Awards Dinner (Tina’s original idea), which is now in its sixth year. At this dinner, which usually attracts a turnout of 75-120 people, two special awards are given. First is the Holly Spevak Memorial Award, to honor an attorney doing public interest/nonprofit work to help the community. While originally this award was to recognize a newer attorney, there is now less emphasis placed on the honoree’s admission date. Second is the Legacy Award, which honors a pioneering
attorney who has helped the advancement of women lawyers in the profession. This dinner also awards the Mary Sullivan Scholarship (usually $500) to a deserving law student with strong connections to Ventura County and an interest in doing pro bono work. Funds for the scholarship are raised through the silent auction (items donated by members) held at this dinner. For the past few years, the dinner has been at the Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, which has provided excellent Kosher gourmet food in a nice setting as well as wine tasting. This year’s dinner on November 29 will be no different, and will honor Laura Bartels (current VCBA Secretary-Treasurer) and Judge Gay Conroy as the worthy award recipients.

When Jill took over as president in 2012, she brought a wealth of ideas and experience having previously served as president of Santa Barbara Women Lawyers (SBWL). Jill’s main goals were to build up WLVC’s infrastructure, improve membership and to make the organization more active otherwise. She has certainly accomplished that this year by forming a full board with Charmaine Buehner as vice-president/president-elect, Katie Hause as treasurer, Robert Guerra as secretary, Kathy Smith as programs committee chair, Natalie Panossian as CWL affiliate governor, and Jodi as past president. With the assistance of Katie, WLVC was able to clean house by putting its books in order and ensuring that it will be financially stable  going forward. Current membership of WLVC has increased to over 30. The monthly lunch meetings, which were formerly held at the VCBA office, have since moved to Ottavio’s in Camarillo. These meetings feature great speakers on interesting topics (e.g., work/life balance, substantive practice, workplace issues) and often offer MCLE credits. Other efforts by Jill have been to establish stronger ties with other minority bars through the Ventura County Diversity Bar Alliance to address bigger causes and issues such as judicial diversity. WLVC is currently in the process of revising its bylaws to allow for endorsements of judicial candidates, with the eventual goal of forming a judicial committee similar to what’s already in place with Santa Barbara Women Lawyers. At the same time, WLVC has every intention of maintaining communications and involvement with VCBA.

Other events that WLVC would like make an annual tradition are its appellate justices reception, which was hugely successful back in February. At this reception, Jodi (much to her surprise) was presented with an award of excellence for all her hard work in keeping WLVC alive for many years when membership waned. Another popular event that will continue is the wine mixer in Carpinteria that is held jointly with SBWL. Additional ideas for the future are to create more subcommittees for specific projects/ activities, and to develop a membership directory for referrals.

As the legal profession has changed dramatically in terms of women breaking the glass ceiling in corporate legal departments, firm partnership positions and on the bench, there are now more women role models to serve as mentors and promote camaraderie. Yet, as Jill has expressed, there is still more work to be done and WLVC wants to keep building the momentum.

Dien Le is a partner at Westlake Village-based Sullivan Taketa LLP, where he represents clients in business litigation, employment litigation, real property litigation and appellate matters in both federal and state courts. He also assists clients with registration of trademarks and copyrights.

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