WOMEN IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION
The percentage of female lawyers has slowly inched up over the past decade, according to the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, a tally of lawyers by every licensing agency in every state. In 2010, fewer than one-third of all lawyers (31%) were women. Eleven years later, in 2021, the percentage stood at 37%.
The long-term trend is easier to see when viewed over the course of decades. The biggest growth in female lawyers came in the 1980s and ‘90s. From 1950 to 1970, only 3% of all lawyers were women. The percentage increased to 8% in 1980, 20% in 1991 and 29% in 2000.
The trend is also apparent at law schools. Since 2010, the number of male students has declined every year – from 78,516 in 2010 to 52,339 in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of female law school students has increased every year since 2015 – from 55,766 in 2016 to 61,949 in 2020. Women now significantly outnumber men in U.S. law school, ad the gap is widening. In 2020, there were 9,610 more female students than male students.
The number of female federal judges has increased dramatically. The first woman was appointed to the federal judiciary in 1928, when 217 men held that position. By 1950, there were still only three female federal judges. That rose to 46 in 1980. And by Jan. 1, 2021, 381 women were on the federal bench – roughly 1 in 4 (28%) of all federal judges.
Women fare better in state Supreme Courts, where they make up 39% of all high-court justices, according to a 2021 survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. That’s roughly the same as the share of all lawyers who are women nationally: 37%.
Women in Law Firms
Although roughly half of all law school graduates have been female since 2000, the number of women in senior leadership roles at U.S. law firms is far less than half. However, the numbers have slowly edged up in recent years.
About 21% of all equity partners were female in 2020, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers. That’s unchanged from 2019, but up from 15% in 2012. Also, about 31% of all non-equity partners were female in 2020, also unchanged from 2019, but up from 25% in 2011.
Women of color also are not well-represented among law firm leaders. While 22% of law firm associates were women of color in 2020, they made up only 4% of non-equity partners and 3% of equity partners. Among 103 female lawyers of color surveyed in 2019, 70% reported leaving or considering leaving the legal profession, according to the recently published ABA report “Left Out and Left Behind.”
Pay for women at U.S. law firms continues to lag behind pay for men in similar positions. The gap is wider among equity partners than among associates and non-equity partners, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers:
- Among associates, average pay for women was 91% of average pay for men in 2020: $198,687 versus $217,898.
- Among non-equity partners, average compensation for women was 93% of average compensation for men: $340,643 versus $366,805.
- Among equity partners, average compensation for women was 85% of average compensation for men: $728,923 versus $861,349.
Women in Law Schools
A majority of law school students in the United States are women: 54.1% in 2020. That’s up from 48.4% in 2000.
Women achieved majority status in ABA-accredited law schools only recently. The first time there were more first-year female students than first-year male students was in 2014. Two years later, in 2016, women made up a majority of all students in law schools for the first time.
Here’s another way of looking at the gender trend in law schools: In 2020, nearly three times as many law schools had female majorities (143 law schools) as schools with male majorities (50 law schools). And at two law schools in 2020 (North Carolina Central and Northeastern), women outnumbered men by a 2-to-1 ratio.
The change came slowly over several decades. In 1963, only 8.3% of first-year law students were female, rising to 16% in 1973, 38% in 1983 and 43% by 1993.
More women than ever are also leading U.S. law schools. In 2000, only 10% of law school deans were women. By 2009, the percentage of female deans rose to 21%. And as of May 1, 2021, 41% of all law school deans were women, according to Rosenblatt’s Deans Database at the Mississippi College School of Law.
Walking Out the Door
Male and female lawyers strongly disagree on how well their law firms foster long-term careers for women. That is one conclusion from a study published in October 2019 by the ABA and ALM Intelligence, which explored why experienced female lawyers are leaving law firms. The report, “Walking Out the Door,” includes results from a survey of more than 1,200 senior lawyers at the nation’s biggest private law firms.
Generally, men thought their law firms treated women fairly, but women disagreed. For example, the vast majority of men (88%) said gender diversity is widely acknowledged as a firm priority. Barely half of women (54%) agreed. Also, nearly 3 out of 4 men (74%) said their law firms successfully retained experienced women. Less than half of women (47%) agreed.
Female lawyers also reported significantly less job satisfaction than men in several important areas. For example, 71% of men said they were satisfied with the recognition they received at work, but only 50% of women said the same. Likewise, 62% of men said they were satisfied with opportunities for advancement at their law firms, but only 45% of women felt the same.
The survey also revealed that half of all female lawyers (50%) said they experienced unwanted sexual conduct at work, and 1 in 4 women said they avoided reporting sexual harassment due to fear of retaliation. One in six female lawyers (16%) said they lost work opportunities as a result of rebuffing sexual advances.
Finally, the women surveyed said caretaking commitments are the No. 1 reason (58%) why experienced female lawyers leave their law firms, followed by stress at work (54%) and emphasis on marketing or originating business (51%).