When Corrine Cooke began her career in the law, she had everything she needed for success: skills, a top-notch legal education and a clerkship behind her. But there was one thing working against her, and the possibility of rising to a top management job: she is a woman.
“There are some misconceptions of women that make it more difficult to be considered for management positions,” she says. “If someone is a hard worker, she is looked upon as not approachable. Instead of saying that women have leadership skills, we’re looked on as bossy or too ambitious,” she says.
Other than sexist perceptions, there were further factors in play. With the expectation of raising a family, it would be harder for Cooke to put in the long hours needed to succeed at a private law firm. Just as bad, with the “good ol’ boys club” of men referring business to one another, it would be harder for her to build a client base.
These difficulties are borne out in the numbers, as women are few and far between as partners and upper-level managers in law firms, even after 40 years of feminist lawyers trying to swing the balance.
So, when Cooke began her career at Stark & Stark, a Lenox Drive-based law firm, as a divorce lawyer, she took steps to make the firm a better place for her and other women. Cooke, a 2004 graduate of Duquesne who earned her law degree at Villanova Law School in 2007, found management that was receptive to her ideas, and in 2013, after she had been with the firm five years, she spearheaded a women’s initiative at the company.
“I researched what other firms were doing, and I put together a packet of information and e-mailed it to my bosses and set up a lunch meeting,” she says.
The initiative formed several committees, such as a professional development committee, a community outreach committee, and a policy committee. They pushed through a number of work policy changes that help women.
Family Leave: Stark & Stark instituted a new family leave policy that guarantees 12 paid weeks of family leave. The policy applies to both men and women, and helps working mothers maintain a better work-life balance.
Flexible Schedule: To further help working mothers, the firm allows flexible work schedules to help them get the job done while meeting family obligations.
Mentorship: In the legal profession, having a mentor is extremely important for success, Cooke says. Her own career benefitted from mentorship from more senior lawyers, so she started a program that extends the same opportunities to younger women lawyers. The program is designed to build strong women leaders in the firm.
Senior attorneys are matched with younger counterparts, and they meet quarterly.
Good Ol’ Girls Network: Cooke says that she and other women lawyers refer clients to one another, to counteract the tendency of male lawyers to give each other clients.
This extends to other professions as well. When Cooke needs to recommend a realtor to sell a house in a divorce, or a financial advisor, she seeks out women professionals first. “I think that’s the least we can do to combat the good ol’ boys club,” she says.
Filling the Pipeline: Stark & Stark actively recruits female attorneys, and the company has a rule that for every position, at least one woman must be interviewed.
“That’s definitely something we’re emphasizing,” she says. “We’re targeting women candidates.”
The efforts at increasing diversity at the firm have yielded results. Stark & Stark has 20 female partners, although the only managing partner is a man.
Cooke grew up in Ewing, where her mother was a child psychologist and her father worked for the state department of developmental disabilities. She lives in Delanco with a husband whom she says has helped her career by splitting household responsibilities.
Cooke says finding a good partner who is willing to contribute equally on the domestic front is key to the career of any professional woman. “That’s something I read in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, ‘Lean In,’ she says. Cooke has her own advice for women starting off in legal careers, adding to that of Facebook COO Sandberg, whose book was a bestseller in 2013.
“Always ask for feedback,” she says. “That’s something I’ve done from Day One, and I’ve learned from constructive criticism. Don’t be afraid to go either to your mentors or other women professionals if you’re having an issue, because they’ve probably faced similar issues. Don’t be afraid to seek out advice from people who have been in your shoes.”