Some came for the wine. Everyone came for the women.
The other women, that is. It had been a while since the members of Juris Divas, a social networking group of female lawyers and judges, had gotten together for an off-hours debriefing. It was high time for a different kind of bar exam.
So, on a recent Thursday evening, a little vino-tasting party in the rehabbed basement at North Loop Wine & Spirits drew nearly 40 of them out of the courtroom and into the easy conversation of what is essentially their good ol' girls' club -- and a strong, sisterly support network for women who work in law.
Hennepin County Family Court Judge Regina Chu seemed very pleased to have left her robe at the office, cutting a chic figure in a black dress and red stiletto heels as she chatted with a table of young lawyers. First-timers Ali Sieben and Courtney Lawrence of Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben were as eager to soak up the wisdom of their elders as they were to kick back with a glass of wine.
Christa Groshek, a criminal defense attorney who runs her own Minneapolis practice, said the group was a godsend.
"Some of the other [women in law] groups are a bit buttoned up, bless their hearts," she said. "The Divas are all about enjoying ourselves. And I love being with the girls, not having to act like a guy."
Except in one way: "Now when we see each other in court, we can do what the men do -- joke around with each other."
The club was co-founded by Carolyn Agin Schmidt, a criminal defense attorney, and Kristen Naros, who specializes in personal-injury cases. Both opened up their own shops in fields dominated by male lawyers.
"It used to be that women in our business were extra-competitive with each other," said Schmidt. "Sisterhood is more important than ever, with how competitive it is out there. So many women in our profession feel they have to emulate the guys to be successful. We're all about being feminine and successful."
See ya, guys
It began with an errant cigar.
At an after-work gathering six years ago, a male colleague sitting next to Schmidt ashed on her lap. It was accidental; still, she thought, that's it. We women need our own type of party. Besides, "I was getting tired of being left back at the office while the guys all went golfing," she said.
Through word of mouth, the two drew 45 women to their first party, many of whom thanked them profusely, saying they not only loved the idea, they needed it.
"A lot of women, especially those with families, said they had absolutely no social life, no time for one, and this was a way of filling that void," Schmidt said.
Since then, the two have organized a variety of events, including a holiday shopping and decorating charity party at the Galleria in Edina that raised $3,000 for ovarian cancer research.
Today, the e-mail list numbers more than 400 -- and even some of their male colleagues have come knocking.
"Now they're all jealous and want to be invited," Naros said. "Some have even threatened to come in drag."
Equal numbers, unequal pay
While the Juris Divas club puts an emphasis on fun, its members are seriously appreciative of one another for the professional solidarity, as well. Significant gender gaps still exist in the field of law.
Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor sit on the Supreme Court. The dean of Harvard Law School, one of the nation's most prestigious, is a woman, Martha Minow. About half of all law school graduates in the country are women, a trend that's held steady for the past 20 years. Yet only 30 percent of the jobs are held by women.
Men still make up 74 percent of judges and 82 percent of general counsel for Fortune 500 companies, according to an American Bar Association study released this year. Fewer than 20 percent of women in private practice are partners in their firms. Among the country's 200 largest firms, only 6 percent of managing partners are women. And women's salaries round off to about 75 percent of their male counterparts.'
"Social networking is really key to how people advance, particularly in a depressed economy," said Fionnuala Ní Aolain, a professor and associate dean at the University of Minnesota's law school. "Men have historically used social networks; now women are learning that they are their own best network. These groups also offer a way to develop relationships with mentors, recognizing who's the best fit for you in a whole roomful of women."
Such groups are also about learning to find balance, together, between work and home life, said Ní Aolain: "Women still bear the bulk of the responsibility for child care. Men aren't balancing in quite the same way."
Gifts and girl talk
After the group had tasted several wines described by Twin Cities wine importer Annette Peters, Naros and Schmidt held up their arms to show off their custom Juris Divas charm bracelets, including charms depicting legal objets like the scales of justice, gavels and, of course, handcuffs. The bracelets are made especially for the club by Bergstrom Jewelers.
Another Divas tradition is a gift exchange. Everyone brings a surprise gift bag containing a $10 to $15 trifle, and pick up one as they leave theirs.
Danielle Shelton Walczak, who started her own family-law practice in St. Louis Park, snagged one of those gizmos that clip a handbag onto a restaurant table. She was a Divas newbie, and said she was definitely making it to the next outing if possible.
"I only knew three faces when I walked in the door, and now I've met some more on such a fun level -- more fun, anyway, than meeting them for the first time as opposing counsel," she said.
In a high-pressure profession like the law, Groshek said, "These are my kind of women."
There's just one rule, Naros said:
"No ashing on the divas."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046