Women in Law: Losing Ground?

A local law school Dean recently commented that women seem to be backsliding in the legal profession. She cited lower female enrollment in law schools, lack of women in law firm leadership positions, and stagnant growth in the ranks of women in the judiciary. Her comment surprised me. Are women losing ground in law? Perhaps it’s time to look at some statistics.

Women in Law School

A report by Catalyst published in July 2012 on women in the legal profession demonstrates that 1993 was the year with the highest percentage of women as J.D. students, at 50.4%. But in the 2009-2010 class, that number was down to 47.2% of J.D. students, and other reports show that in the 2011-2012 academic year, women made up only 46.8% of the population of first year law students.

The 2011-2012 New York Law School Law Review Diversity Report was prepared by the New York Law School Law Review in conjunction with Ms. JD and based on a survey of law reviews at ABA-approved law schools. The survey showed that on average, women held 43% of leadership positions on law reviews, but only 31% of the Editor-In-Chief positions. Interestingly, those law schools with a higher percentage of full-time female faculty also had a higher percentage of women on law review overall, although there was no corresponding increase in law review leadership or editor-in-chief positions held by women.

The NYLS survey asks whether the low percentage of female Editors-in-Chief foreshadows the low percentages of women on the bench, in law firm partnerships, and in the general counsel’s office of Fortune 500 companies; after all, if women are not attaining leadership positions in law school, how will they fare in the leadership ranks in the profession?

Overall, according to the American Bar Association’s “A Current Glance at Women in the Law,” dated September 2012 and compiled by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession,  women make up 33% of the legal profession, while men make up 67%. Already we can see a sharp decrease in the percentage of women in the profession, as compared to the percentage of women attending law school.

Female Law School Faculty

The ABA report cites the Association of American Law Schools Statistical Report on Law Faculty from 2008-2009 , showing that during that time, women made up only 20.6% of law school Deans, as compared to 45.7% of Associate, Vice or Deputy Deans, and 66.2% of Assistant Deans. According to these statistics, as women climb the legal academic career ladder, their chances of obtaining a leadership position on the next rung declines significantly.

Women in Private Law Practice

Women in law firms seem to follow the same pattern. The ABA report reveals that women make up 47.7% of summer associates, 45.4% of associates, 19.5% of partners, and 15% of equity partners overall, and only 5% of managing partners at the 200 largest law firms. Once again, it appears that women are losing ground as they progress in their careers; while the percentages of women summer associates is approaching equality, it begins declining as soon as women become associates and continues this decline through partnership, equity partnership and managing partner status.

The Catalyst report also reveals that women have not made great strides in obtaining leadership positions in law firms. In 2000, 15.6% of law firm partners were women. As noted above, in 2011, women have only increased that to 19.5% – a gain of only 3.9% over 11 years. In addition, 11% of the largest law firms in the U.S. currently have no women at all on their governing committees, and women partners constituted only 16% of those partners receiving credit for having $500,000 worth of business or more.

In-House Counsel

For women who choose in-house counsel positions, the numbers are also discouraging. Among Fortune 500 companies, men make up 79.8% of General Counsels, with women trailing far behind at only 20.2%. Among the next tier (Fortune 501-1000 companies), women make up an even smaller percentage: only 16.4% of General Counsels.

Clerks and Judges

Among the class of 2009, women obtained 51% of judicial clerkships overall, but a smaller percentage of federal judicial clerkships (45.6%) vs. men, with women being awarded more state and local clerkships.

In the judiciary itself, statistics from 2012 reveal that women still have a long way to go. Overall, women represent only 27.1% of all federal and state judges, according to the Women in Federal and State-Level Judgeships report by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at the University at Albany.  Although this number is an improvement from 26.6% in 2011 and 26.0% in 2010, it is a small one.

Currently, women hold 33% of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court, 30.9% of judicial positions on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and 24.1% of federal judicial positions in the U.S. In state courts, women are also a significant minority, holding only 27% of all state court judicial positions.

Equal Pay

The ABA study cites statistics from the 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding salaries of women vs. men in the legal profession. Here again, women are making only small strides and are still appreciably behind their male counterparts. In 2004, women earned only 73.4% of what men earned; in 2011, that number has risen to 86.6%. Women equity partners in the 200 largest firms also earn 86% of the compensation earned by their male peers.

It should be noted that this phenomenon is not limited to the legal profession. According to the National Women’s Law Center, there is a national wage gap; overall, women are paid less than men. As of 2011, women are paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, meaning that women would need to make an additional 33 cents on the dollar to equal men, although the wage gap is different in every state. In law, women would need to earn an average of 13-14 additional cents for every dollar to equal compensation paid to men in the legal profession.

Based on the statistics, it appears that the Dean is right; there are fewer women in law schools and women are not attaining leadership positions in the legal field at the same pace as men. Why it is happening, what this means to the profession, and how we can change it (if we wish to) are all questions that deserve attention.

(photo: Businesswoman drawing a decreasing graph from Shutterstock)

1 Comment

  1. Avatar Andrew Nettleman says:

    Were the ABA statistics regarding pay standardized for age/years of practice? I’m guessing not and would bet that we will continue to see women increase in salary ratio to men as the last vestiges of the old boy’s network (and a lot of the really senior partners at firms) finish aging out of practice.

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