Volume 20, Number 1
Jan/Feb 2003


THE CHAIR'S CORNER

Women in the Law
By Karen J. Mathis

WHEN THE GPSOLO EDITORIAL BOARD DECIDED TO DO A MAGAZINE HIGHLIGHTING THE CURRENT STATUS OF "WOMEN IN THE LAW," I WAS AN ENTHUSIASTIC PROPONENT. AFTER ALL, AS A WOMAN, I HAVE SOME FIRSTHAND KNOWLEDGE OF THE SUBJECT. ON A MORE PROFESSIONAL BASIS, I HAD THE HONOR OF CHAIRING THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION'S COMMISSION ON WOMEN IN THE PROFESSION FOR THREE YEARS.1
As you will see when you read this excellent edition of GPSolo, the issues affecting women in the legal profession are issues that affect all lawyers-even "non-women." Women comprise 28.9 percent of all U.S. lawyers.2 They are disproportionately sole practitioners, in small law firms, in government, and in corporate law departments.3 Women comprise a whopping 42 percent of legal aid attorneys and public defenders.4 They often are the lawyers raising issues of balanced lives, family-related challenges such as reduced scheduling, leave policies, and sexual harassment, which are matters that affect all lawyers.
Many in the profession-including women-believe that if there ever was a "women's issue" in the legal profession, it no longer exists, and that there is substantial parity between men and women in the law. As the articles in this issue demonstrate, this simply isn't true.
The following statistics correctly reflect that women have come a long way to change the traditional face of the legal profession and to take their places in law offices, on the bench, in corporate counsel offices, on law school faculties, and in corporate boardrooms. Yet there are still substantial inequities and obstacles that must be addressed if our profession is to be truly inclusive and benefit from the skills, education, life experiences, and wisdom women bring to the law.
Since the 1970s the number of women in the legal profession has grown more than 16-fold. From just a handful of women in my entering law school class of 1972, the number of women enrolled in first-year law school classes today typically represent 50 percent or more. The stories of the "first woman" to do this or that are becoming part of our shared history. Happily, we are on the second, third, or subsequent round of women who have become chief judges, managing partners, general counsel, and elected officials!
As one example, women today are going into large law firms in numbers commensurate with their law school graduation rates. In a profession where it takes between eight and ten years to become a law firm partner, we might expect to find a large percentage of women law partners. In fact, since the late 1980s, women summer associates and law firm associates have numbered over 30 percent (in 1998 they numbered 44 percent and 41 percent, respectively5). Yet only 14.5 percent of women in law firms nationwide are partners.
Similarly, not all partners are created equal. While 75 percent of male partners have equity in the firm, only 61 percent of women do. Law firms report that over 92 percent of them have written policies that offer reduced scheduling for lawyers. But only 4.5 percent of associates and 1.3 percent of partners work part time, and most of these are female lawyers. Anecdotally, one hears that electing to work a reduced schedule will put your career on the back burner, even when you resume full-time work!
Salary and pay equity remain stalled, as studies performed by Catalyst and other organizations have concluded. The annual median salary of male lawyers is about $70,000, while women are at $50,000. Sadly, this disparity evidences itself even during the first three years of practice, when neither women nor men have a book of business or superior "lawyering skills," and it seems to increase the longer they practice law.6
Many commentators speculate that women leave the profession in a larger percentage than do males. This isn't true. What is true is that women leave large law firms in larger numbers than their male counterparts, given their relative representation at such firms. In fact, a number of large firms are recognizing this loss of extremely talented lawyers, not to mention the investment they have made in them. As more and more policy setters have recognized this "brain drain," some have begun to examine best practices that will keep their female lawyers in the firms' employ.7
It seems that women have shattered the glass ceiling only to find a second glass ceiling a bit later in their careers. That is the ceiling that continues to confine them to particular areas of the law; limits their ability to advance while working on a reduced schedule; or challenges their ability to become a managing partner, department chief, general counsel, or dean of a law school. So long as we do not succumb to the idea that there are no longer issues of inequality due to gender in our profession, the law will continue to become a more hospitable place for women and, hence, for all lawyers.
As the legal profession faces competition for the best and brightest talent with business, accounting firms, and other professions, as well as increased globalization, it must husband its resources wisely. At this point almost 30 percent of these resources are female. By the year 2010, the number of women and minorities in the profession will approach 50 percent of all lawyers. It's easy to see why many believe what's good for women in the legal profession is good for the legal profession.
The increased number of women in the legal profession has changed its face, often making the law more humane and open. Women lawyers have not made these changes in a vacuum. They have been supported, mentored, guided, and taught by men and institutions that understand the changing dynamics of our profession. The benefits of gender diversity in the profession are everywhere around us.
As you read this magazine, take a moment to note that the authors are male and female. If you are of "a certain age," think about what the law was like when there were fewer women practicing it! I think you'll agree that it's a better profession today than it was back then, and it will get better and better as it becomes more diverse and inclusive-by welcoming those of both genders, all races, ethnicities, backgrounds, and sexual orientations, as well as those with disabilities. Let us celebrate that diversity in our profession.

Notes
1. The American Bar Association's (ABA) Board of Governors created the Commission on Women in 1987. Its other chairs have been Hillary Rodham Clinton, Cory Amron, Laurel Bellows, Deborah Rhode, and Diane Yu.
2. U.S. Dep't of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (1999).
3. Clara N. Carson, Lawyer Statistical Report: The U.S. Legal Profession in 1995 (American Bar Foundation 1999).
4. Id.
5. National Association for Law Placement, Women and Minorities at Law Firms (1998).
6. Paycheck Check-Up 2000, available at www.abanet.org/
women/snapshots.pdf.
7. See ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Best Practices, unissued report (2001).

Back to Top

< /