A lack of leadership roles, inflexible work schedules, and pay disparities are problems that plague women in many professions — and the legal field is no exception. They are far less likely to be made partners in law firms or to be elected to judgeships than their male peers. Additionally, salaries for women in law are routinely lower than those of men even when they do manage to advance to upper-level positions.
[Above: Students attend a presentation at the Women in Law Institute hosted by the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas.]
Despite these barriers, more women are pursuing the study of law than at any other time in U.S. history. While men still dominate the field — with 64 percent of legal professionals identifying as male — the 2016-2017 school year marked the first time that women outnumbered men in America’s law schools, by a narrow margin of 707 students, according to the American Bar Association (ABA).
In order to truly help women gain ground in the profession, however, more still needs to be done to encourage them to apply to law school. “They far outnumber men as far as college graduates go, so the fact that half of law students are women means that they are still underrepresented in law school,” explains Deborah Merritt, JD, the John Deaver Drinko-Baker and Hostetler Chair in Law at The Ohio State University Mortiz College of Law. She notes that 3.4 percent of male college graduates apply to law school, compared with only 2.6 percent of female graduates.
In addition to being less likely to apply to law school, women tend to enroll in less prestigious programs than men, according to a recent study co-authored by Merritt and Kyle McEntee, JD, executive director of the nonprofit organization Law School Transparency. The study, titled The Leaky Pipeline for Women in the Legal Profession, found that women comprise 46 percent of the student population at the nation’s top law schools but make up more than 55 percent of enrollment at low-ranking schools. They do not represent “50 percent of [student populations] at law schools across the country,” says Merritt. “In fact, it’s quite varied, and the variation has a pattern to it that women are statistically at the less prestigious schools.”
While she admits that more research needs to be done to identify the precise reasons for these discrepancies, she believes that colleges and universities could do more to both encourage and prepare female students to pursue legal careers. She suggests that schools provide programming and events that expose them to law as an option early during their undergraduate years — such as summer institutes for those who are curious about the profession but may need more support.
“The first obstacle is to encourage women to apply to law school,” says Merritt. “It’s not the only answer, but it’s a first step.” She also recommends that pre-law advisers work to better prepare female students to enter high-ranking programs — by helping them prepare for the LSAT and negotiate funding from schools once they are admitted, for example.
More than anything, though, the responsibility for recruiting more women lies with the profession itself. The long work hours expected of many attorneys can serve as a deterrent for anyone who prioritizes a more moderate work-life balance; however, this obstacle can be especially problematic for women who may want flexible or part-time hours to meet family and other needs, Merritt says. “If we want to keep attracting talented people into law practice, the profession needs to become more flexible and realistic,” she says. Similarly, she says, the industry must recognize how other factors, such as gender bias, can deter young women from entering what is still a male-dominated field.
Deborah Rhode, JD, has dedicated much of her career to studying work-life balance and gender bias in law. As director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University School of Law, Rhode believes that law schools have an obligation to prepare female students for some of the issues they may face in the field. “We really need to give them both a better understanding of the problems for women in the profession and some strategies they can personally use to address them,” she says.
Such challenges include female attorneys being held to higher standards than their male colleagues and receiving lower rankings on performance evaluations in areas like competency, assertiveness, and competitiveness, according to Rhode. Women in the legal profession also tend to be left out of networking opportunities, such as important meetings or social events with clients, and are viewed as less committed to their careers if they choose to have children or work regular hours as opposed to the daunting schedule that is often expected of attorneys, she says. These factors can result in women being overlooked when it comes to workplace assignments, consideration for partnerships at firms, and promotions to leadership positions.
Rhode believes that one of the most effective ways for students to learn about tackling these obstacles is through first-person accounts. As a professor, she often invites female attorneys — particularly those of color — to give classroom lectures and presentations about their experiences. “Extra programming to bring in [these women] is key to helping students learn about the challenges they have faced and how they’ve addressed them,” Rhode explains. Hearing personal stories, she says, helps them understand the realities of being a lawyer while also showing them that it is possible for female attorneys to have great careers, despite the adversity they may encounter.
“The law is still a great profession that can provide women with intellectual challenges and opportunities for advancement, as well as a way to make a positive difference in the world,” Rhode says, adding that the landscape of legal education has undergone great changes since the 1970s, when women first began enrolling in law school in significant numbers. “We have a much better awareness now of the challenges that plague them in the profession, and a greater awareness of how to address them, and all of that has happened in the space of a generation. So, I wouldn’t underestimate the progress that can be made in a short time in a [field] that’s truly committed to equal opportunity under the law.”
The Center for Women in Law (CWL) is doing its part to ensure those equal opportunities exist for women in law. Housed at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, the center was founded in 2009 by a group of women who had achieved successful legal careers and wanted to ensure that those coming behind them had “every opportunity possible to succeed in the profession,” says CWL Executive Director Linda Chanow, JD.
“One of the underpinnings of the center is that inequality for women in law isn’t somebody else’s problem — it’s ours,” she says. “And we need to take responsibility for fixing this and creating opportunities for others.”
To do so, CWL takes an educational approach. Believing that students should enter the profession equipped with the knowledge of how to identify and negate gender bias, the center hosts the Women in Law Institute (WLI). Participants from across the country attend WLI to learn about implicit and explicit bias, as well as techniques to help them in the office and courtroom, says Chanow. “We know there are some mannerisms that reinforce gender bias in the workplace, but it’s easy enough to get rid of some of those so that women can [be] more comfortable, stronger, and powerful,” she says.
Through small-group workshops, WLI participants practice replacing some of those mannerisms — such as avoiding eye contact or not exhibiting self-confidence when speaking — with more assertive approaches to communication. “We teach them that there is a difference between saying, ‘I think the law says this’ and saying definitively, ‘The law says this,’ because taking out that one line can make a real difference,” Chanow says. “We also look at removing the upswing at the end of sentences, maintaining eye contact, and using posture that helps you appear confident and strong.”
She believes that by teaching women how to navigate communication in the legal environment, WLI enables them to focus on improving their practice rather than worrying about gender bias. “What I’ve found is that the stronger your practice, the stronger your skills and the more leverage you have for negotiating what you want out of your career,” says Chanow. Furthermore, research has shown that when female lawyers achieve the rank of partner, they have more bargaining power concerning issues like work-life balance.
Like CWL, the ABA and the National Association of Women Lawyers advocate for increasing female representation in leadership positions if the profession is to achieve gender equality. Data from both organizations show that having women on compensation committees leads to greater pay equity and that when female attorneys advance in their firms, it’s easier for other women to do so as well.
This concept of women helping women also plays out in role modeling. According to Chanow, having female role models, mentors, and advocates can be invaluable for those entering the profession, which is why CWL works to connect law students with the powerful women who comprise its nationwide network of lawyers, judges, and legal counsel. Chanow says that they not only help students navigate the profession but also demonstrate to them that they, too, can be leaders in the field one day.
In addition, CWL has a robust internship program that allows female law students to engage and network with senior members on a regular basis. Those participating are able to attend the Women’s Power Summit, which brings together top leaders in the field, including the chairs of major law firms, politicians, judges, and national speakers such as Gloria Steinem. The opportunity to learn about overcoming adversity from such successful female professionals is often a life-changing experience for the interns, says Chanow, as it not only provides a network of powerful role models and allies but also demonstrates how women can work together toward gender equality.
“We always try to teach other women … to succeed, but when they do, we want them to reach a hand out to help others,” she says. “Ultimately, that is what’s going to play a major role in shifting their numbers in and changing the nature of the profession.”●
Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.