December 14, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

How RBG Paved the Way for Women Lawyers

by Mimi Rocah

For many women lawyers, even those of us who never had the honor of meeting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg face to face, her death feels surprisingly personal. As a Jewish woman lawyer, I feel a debt of gratitude knowing that I likely would not be sitting in the place that I am were it not for the life and work of RBG. Justice Ginsburg was acutely aware of, and paid respect to, women lawyers who came before her, whom she called “waypavers and pathmarkers.” 

Today, women represent approximately 50 percent of the students graduating from law schools.

Today, women represent approximately 50 percent of the students graduating from law schools.

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Justice Ginsburg went to law school at a time when women represented less than 3 percent of all lawyers in the country; today, we are approximately 38 percent. She was admitted to Harvard Law School in 1956 as one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men, and the dean reportedly asked her and the other women law students why they were taking a man’s spot.

Women have obviously made enormous progress in the legal field. Today, women represent approximately 50 percent of the students graduating from law schools and, presumably, no one would question a woman’s right to pursue a legal career. When most lawyers practicing today were born, there had not yet been a single female Supreme Court justice. As of today, there have been four. Thanks in no small part to Justice Ginsburg, women are now leaders in every area of the law and are treated more equally and more fairly than ever before.

But the departure of Justice Ginsburg from the legal landscape highlights the fragility of our democracy and our rights, and the limitations of our accomplishments and the progress we have made as women and as lawyers. As we celebrate her life and the magnitude of what she accomplished for herself—and for us—we also feel the enormity of the work still before us. Justice Ginsburg devoted chapters of her 2016 autobiography, My Own Words, to discussing women lawyers who came before her, like Belva Lockwood, the first woman to gain admission to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. She noted the progress for women in the legal profession, including the judiciary, but called out that there was still much work to be done. She said, “there is a need for women of Lockwood’s sense and steel to guard against backsliding, and to ensure our daughters and granddaughters can aspire and achieve, with no artificial barriers blocking their way.”

With RBG’s passing, we too must take stock not only of what we have accomplished in the legal field, but also how far we still have to go. Less than 35 percent of federal judges, and only 22 percent of state court judges, were women as of 2019. Women lawyers’ weekly salaries were still only 80 percent of those of male lawyers in 2018, and men still constitute 70 percent or more of general counsels for Fortune 500 corporations. Seventy-five percent of elected prosecutors across the country are white men.

More importantly, these statistics don’t tell the whole story. Women in all professions, including the law, face daily, often insidious and sometimes explicit, discrimination. Almost all women lawyers I know have experienced harassment by a judge, colleague, adversary, or supervisor. We have had our appearance commented on at inappropriate times, our abilities underestimated, and our opportunities limited because we are not part of the old boys’ club. In some cases, we have experienced inappropriate touching or other extreme sexual harassment. We often feel that we cannot speak out because of how that might impact our career. This is remarkable because we, the women of the legal profession, are in most cases supposed to be the empowered ones—the ones with the resources, the skill set, the tools at our disposal to fight this power imbalance.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us feeling in awe of and grateful to Justice Ginsburg. She overcame enormous obstacles and broke down doors in her own career, and then she held them open for the rest of us. But it also leaves this woman lawyer (and I expect legions more) feeling an even greater determination to continue her path toward progress. We must use our “sense and steel” to honor the memory of one of the greatest “waypavers and pathmarkers” of all time by continuing to push forward our progress as women lawyers.

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Mimi Rocah

District Attorney in Westchester County, New York

Mimi Rocah is a former federal prosecutor, Pace University School of Law’s Distinguished Fellow in Criminal Justice, legal analyst for MSNBC, and district attorney in Westchester County, New York.