Seasoned Neutrals Discuss Implicit Bias and Stereotypes in the Legal Profession at Women’s Initiative Committee Fall CLE - ADR Systems

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Hon. Helaine L. Berger, (Ret.), Hon. Lisa R. Curcio, (Ret.), Hon. Kay M. Hanlon, (Ret.) and Hon. Brigid M. McGrath, (Ret.), senior mediators and arbitrators at ADR Systems, presented at the Women’s Initiative Committee’s Advanced Gender, Diversity & Mediation CLE at Petterino’s on Nov. 15th.

The neutrals spoke about the presence of implicit bias and stereotypes against women in the legal profession and its impact on the mediation process to an audience of women attorneys. Each neutral had the opportunity to speak on a specific topic and then discuss their presentation with the attendees.

“Have you ever heard these remarks before? Are you the court reporter? Do you work for an attorney? You should smile more. You should smile less. You’re a little aggressive. And have you ever been called darling, dear, sweetheart or honey?”  Judge Hanlon asked during her presentation. “Many of us have. This language — this way of viewing and treating women attorneys — reveals deep implicit biases and stereotypes about women.”

During their presentations, Judge Curcio and Judge McGrath noted that implicit biases and stereotypes emanate from a tendency in the brain to organize and categorize information about people in terms of appearance, manner of speech, body language and more.

“When it comes to communication styles in particular, people make decisions about body language before we ever open our mouths,” Judge Curcio said. “How women communicate with their bodies – leaning forward to demonstrate that they are listening, and nodding to demonstrate understanding – and how they then speak – because women’s voices are pitched higher than men’s, which in our society is considered as non-authoritative – informs the ways men and women have perceived women.”

“The continued influence of implicit biases and stereotypes is one of the main reasons women are still associated with the image of the homemaker,” Judge McGrath said. “For women attorneys, it also seems to be one of the main reasons why they have found it difficult to advance in the legal profession.”

Women comprise only 30% of attorneys in private practice, and in the 200 largest firms, they account for only 20.2% of partners, 17% of equity partners and only 4% of managing partners, Judge McGrath noted, citing a 2016 study from the Cardozo Journal of Law and Gender.

Given their pervasiveness, implicit biases and stereotypes about women naturally impact the mediation process for women attorneys and their clients as well.

“In mediation, settlements benefit from cooperation. When one party cooperates, and the other does not, the cooperator typically fares worse in the dispute—and women, generally, prefer to cooperate because they value and pursue relational goals when negotiating,” Judge Berger said.

The Women’s Initiative Committee’s Advanced Gender, Diversity & Mediation CLE was the first official event that Judge McGrath participated in as an ADR Systems neutral.

ADR Systems launched the Women’s Initiative Committee in 2018. “Regardless of background or practice, women can learn from and assist each other to achieve their goals. ADR Systems wants to support that initiative and help foster these instrumental relationships among women,” said Meghann Smith, Esq., director of the Commercial and Family Law Division at ADR Systems.

The Women’s Initiative Committee will continue its programming initiatives with an event this coming Spring.


Hon. Helaine L. Berger, (Ret.) is an experienced civil litigator who tried cases in Criminal, Chancery, Law and Domestic Relations before serving as a judge in Cook County’s Domestic Relations Division for 19 years.  Judge Berger has been active in the legal community, including Chair of the CBA’s Fee Committee and President of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois.  She is now a senior mediator and arbitrator at ADR Systems where she concentrates in family law.  Judge Berger is flexible and creative in her approach to mediation and has helped ADR Systems launch an innovative fast track mediation program for family law cases.

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Hon. Lisa R. Curcio, (Ret.) brings an abundance of real-world experience — real estate, business and banking —  to her mediation and arbitration practice. Of over 15 years on the bench, she spent 11 in the Chancery Division where she presided over claims for mechanics liens and all aspects of claims under construction contracts. Before she went on the bench, Judge Curcio represented parties in medical malpractice, premises and product liability and other personal injury matters.  Judge Curcio is regarded as an energetic and pragmatic neutral who helps parties construct suitable solutions to their disputes.

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Hon. Kay M. Hanlon, (Ret.) has expertise in resolving personal injury actions such as medical malpractice, mass torts and product liability, as well as commercial actions such as legal malpractice, eminent domain and subrogation. Counsel who appeared before Judge Hanlon found her to be perpetually prepared and ready to listen attentively. Her open and friendly demeanor is known throughout the legal community. Her personality is tailor-made for her work as a mediator and arbitrator.

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Hon. Brigid M. McGrath, (Ret.) has handled and complex commercial and personal injury case types throughout her 34-year legal and judicial career, including professional malpractice, medical malpractice, insurance coverage and product liability matters. As a senior mediator and arbitrator, she is skilled at diffusing conflict and identifying root causes of disputes. Counsel know Judge McGrath will prepare thoroughly for every case and work diligently toward resolution.

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David Petrich, Esq.Senior Partner, Sandman, Levy & Petrich