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July 10, 2015

More Women Need Seats at the Table

Michele Coleman Mayes

Since its inception, the Commission has published cutting-edge research reports assessing the status of women in the legal profession, identifying barriers to advancement, and proposing practical solutions. The latest in this distinguished line of publications is First Chairs at Trial: More Women Need Seats at the Table.

This study, a joint project of the American Bar Foundation and the Commission on Women in the Profession, is the first of its kind to provide an empirical snapshot of the participation of women and men as lead counsel and trial lawyers in civil and criminal litigation. In addition, the report identifies characteristics of cases, law firms, and clients that impact the extent to which men and women serve in lead counsel roles.

Using a random sample of all cases filed in 2013 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, authors Stephanie A. Scharf and Roberta D. Liebenberg found that women are consistently underrepresented in lead counsel positions and in the role of trial lawyer for all but a few types of cases. In civil cases, men are three times more likely than women to appear as lead counsel or trial lawyers. In criminal cases, men are twice as likely as women to appear as lead counsel and nearly four times more likely than women to appear as trial lawyers.

What can we do to close this gender gap? First Chairs at Trial offers a wide range of best practices for law schools, law firms, clients, judges, and individual women lawyers. For instance, law schools should encourage women law students to become trial lawyers and receive training and mentoring by seasoned trial lawyers to perfect OR who can help them perfect their skills in moot court, legal aid clinics, and trial competitions. Law firms also should focus on specific training for women litigators and encourage participation in both in-house and external trial advocacy programs.

Another excellent resource for law firms is the Commission on Women’s Grit Project Toolkit, which provides training on “grit” and “growth mindset”—two traits that are critical to women’s success. The toolkit is available on the Commission’s website at To get ahead, as the Grit research instructs, individual women lawyers should take action to develop the necessary skills, tools, and expertise. They should proactively seek out assignments where they will obtain critical trial experience and leadership roles.

Clients also play an important role and need to be more proactive in retaining women litigators to be their lead trial lawyers. In addition, they can maintain a list identifying women lawyers in trial court opinions issued in areas important to them. Judges should make an effort to appoint experienced, qualified women lawyers as lead counsel, liaison counsel, or members of the steering committee in multijurisdictional litigation and class action cases.

Yet again, there is ample room and reason to do more to change this landscape, and there is no time like the present to start.

The full report is available for download at no charge on the Commission’s website. We urge you to read this report and select a few ideas that you can use to advance women in the role of lead counsel at trial.