Law schools are majority-female, so where are all the female lawyers?

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    Majority-female incoming classes are a nearly universal trend at U.S. law schools. Many schools reported 2021 as their most diverse class ever. Take Harvard Law School, which reports that 54% of its 2021 incoming JD class identify as women. In 1970, that number was only 10%.

    One would expect these numbers to reflect a huge influx of female lawyers. Yet in 2020, only 25% of law firm partners were women. While they might make up the majority of law students, very few women make it to the top of the field. They are often passed up for promotions, the pay gap remains significant, and a disproportionate number leave the field mid-career.

    Why are women leaving the legal field?

    One study by the American Bar Association showed that 58% of women left their legal career for “caretaking commitments.” Other factors, like stress levels and the pressure to meet billable hours, were close behind. Women also felt disproportionately responsible for childcare arrangements, and more likely to leave work for their children. This is likely a symptom of a broader issue, wherein women are expected to bear the bulk of child-rearing, despite having careers. In the same ABA study mentioned above, 54% of female lawyers stated childcare was their full responsibility. The same was true for only 1% of men.

    The pay gap can also play a role in women deciding to leave work over their husbands. Men simply make more – across the board. In 2016, male lawyers made on average over $24,000 more per year than their female counterparts.

    The only sector where women make up the majority of advocates is the staff attorneys/non-traditional track.

    Even women who don’t leave to raise families struggle to advance. They are frequently stuck in lower-level positions, fighting for promotions that never come. The only sector where women make up the majority of advocates is the staff attorneys/non-traditional track. Staff attorneys are not on partner track – this doesn’t bode well for women hoping to advance their legal careers.

    My experience as a woman at law school

    I was expecting to be surrounded by men at law school. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my class is 58% female. I get to learn alongside a diverse group of intelligent and conscientious people every day. At the same time, I have seen firsthand the various inequities facing women.

    While men are seen as law students, women are ‘female law students’ – an aberration from the prototype. There is a noticeably higher bar held up for female professors. As a female law student, I found myself getting frequently interrupted and talked over. Male judges at a 1L mock trial competition made inappropriate comments towards female competitors. An older attorney I met assumed I was flirting when I asked for mentorship and advice. These types of experiences are common and shared by my fellow female law students. It’s disheartening to think of them as a preview of what we might have to face in our careers.

    Is female mentorship the answer?

    The thought of entering the work force and combatting sexism without the support of a majority-female population around me is daunting. However, law firms are starting to realize that wasting good talent is in no one’s best interest, and there are active efforts to retain more female lawyers.

    Female mentorship is often cited as the best antidote to women leaving the profession. The idea is that creating spaces for women to learn from and look after one another counteracts the effects of the legal boy’s club. In theory, mentorship is an excellent way to allow for more female spaces in a male-dominated field. In practice, it places yet another burden on already overworked women.

    Some of the most effective measures are policies like robust work-from-home opportunities, paid parental leave, and consistently clear promotion criteria.

    A friend gave me some advice recently: don’t try and network with female attorneys. They are too busy, have too much on their plate, and have to do so much extra work to succeed in their field that they don’t have time to be a mentor. Is there hope for a more gender-balanced future in law? Women have been entering and leaving the law at an astounding rate for years now. But there are ways to retain female talent.

    Among the most effective methods are strategies that either help reduce the burden of working while caring for families or set clear guidelines to combat any unspoken boy’s club rules. Some of the most effective measures are policies like robust work-from-home opportunities, paid parental leave, and consistently clear promotion criteria.

    Building a better system

    The problem is that even though we are now the majority, women still aren’t seen as typical law students or lawyers. Gender is also just one aspect of the lack of diversity in law. While women face serious underrepresentation in legal leadership, the numbers are truly abysmal when other factors are considered. Women of color, for instance, made up only 3.79% of partners in 2020. Lawyers with disabilities make up less than 1% of all lawyers. LGBTQ+ individuals make up just 3% of lawyers.

    …there is an up-and-coming generation of lawyers who are not afraid to tackle the difficult topics and radically change policies to foster diversity.

    The growing numbers of diverse law students show that things are changing. It is also in everyone’s best interest to diversify the legal field. While it can be overwhelming to feel that you are representing an entire group identity as you prepare to practice law, there is an up-and-coming generation of lawyers who are not afraid to tackle the difficult topics and radically change policies to foster diversity. Admitting diverse law student populations was the first step. Now, the legal field needs to adapt to this new workforce.

    I am at law school because I want to contribute to building a more equitable justice system. I also want to help those with few resources to access justice. I identify as queer, and I grew up in a very conservative state. I know what it is like to have to fight for recognition and space.

    At law school, I still feel that I am fighting for space, but I also feel part of a movement that is ushering in a new, more diverse generation of lawyers.

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