Published in the May 2014 edition of the Greater Salt Lake Attorney at Law Magazine.
Women like Leslie Van Frank, an attorney at Cohne, Rappaport & Segal, demonstrate each day of their career that gender isn’t a factor in the success of a legal career. While it’s true that gender bias still exists, Van Frank proves that it’s no longer a defining trait.
Van Frank was in her mid-20s when she decided to make the switch from small-business owner to lawyer. “I was unfulfilled and looking for something else,” she said. “With a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, law seemed like the logical place for me.”
Van Frank found her stride in the practice of law. As a litigator, mostly involving real property disputes, Van Frank finds pleasure in problem-solving for clients. While she enjoys court appearances and likes the intellectual stimulation the law provides, she said, “If we can reach a practical solution without a prolonged fight, the clients are always so much happier.”
Following law school, Van Frank was hired at a boutique litigation firm. A couple of years later, she joined the litigation department at Cohne, Rappaport & Segal. It was a good fit. “I’ve been here ever since,” she said.
Since both of her daughters were very young at the start of her career, she began as a part-time associate. Once they were in preschool, however, she entered the world as a full-time litigator.
Rick Rappaport took her under his wing. “He taught me the ins and outs of litigation, title insurance and real property law,” Van Frank said. “He was my net – always willing to debate ideas, and always there to catch me so I would not make a big mistake.”
In addition to Rappaport, who retired a few years ago, Van Frank looks to her husband, Jeff Silvestrini. “He’s also a litigator at Cohne, Rappaport & Segal, mostly business and commercial law.”
The couple has worked together for almost three decades. While they don’t usually work on the same cases, their clients certainly benefit from their dinner discussions. “We regularly provide our clients with unbilled services,” she said. “Jeff keeps me grounded and sane.”
“Since Jeff and I talk about work at home, I can’t really say that I balance my home life and work,” Van Frank said. “Our daughters got an earful growing up.”
As a full-time attorney and mom, Van Frank had to depend on other moms and neighbors to transport the girls to after-school activities. “The girls tell me it was fine, though, and I believe them. They are both grown up now with successful careers in Seattle. One practices law and the other medicine.”
As for bias against women attorneys, Van Frank acknowledges that it still exists. But it has changed over the course of her career. She recalls a gender bias survey circulated by the Utah State Bar about a decade ago, and believes that altered many attitudes simply by generating self-reflection within the bar and the judiciary.
If bias does arise in the course of client representation, she refuses to challenge it directly as doing so would take the focus off the client’s problem. “I look for ways around it,” she said. “For example, I’ve sent male attorneys to court when I know that a judge is biased. I’ll ghost write a letter and have a male colleague sign it. The way I see it, I’ve been hired to problem solve for the client, not to change an unfortunate world view one bias at a time.”
“Being available and well prepared are the keys to a successful career,” Van Frank said, “whether you’re male or female.” What advice does she have for women (and men) entering the legal field? “It gets easier,” she said. “And find a mentor, someone with more legal experience who’s willing to talk anytime about anything.”
- On May 12, 2014