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Graduation is just around the corner for many law students, meaning thousands of new lawyers will be entering the legal workforce. With females now making up the majority of law students, many of these new lawyers will be women.[1] Graduating female law students, however, should be concerned about more than just the bar examination this summer, as gender inequality is still a frequent issue women face in the legal world today. While leaders in the legal profession consistently make diversity a key goal, reports show there are still multiple reasons why females struggle to find equality in the legal workforce, yet solutions remain available to firms that can help alleviate the problem.   Many argue “big law” firms should be the driving force behind eliminating gender inequality in the legal profession, but placing the focus on these types of firms is not the only path to a solution, as female law students can also start to seek out a solution to the issue before they become attorneys.

Women have been able to participate in legal proceedings for a far greater time than many realize. Margaret Brent was the first female attorney in the United States when she was officially labeled an executor and attorney in 1648.[2] Arabella Mansfield was the first female attorney admitted into a state bar; however, she did not achieve this through traditional means, as she did not attend law school, but instead was able to pass the bar exam by observing a male attorney.[3]

Occurrences like the above were incredibly rare, as only five female attorneys were known to be practicing in the United States in 1870.[4] More often than not, women were blocked from obtaining work in the legal field. Throughout the 19th century the Supreme Court turned down attempts by females who sought protection under the 14th Amendment for the right to be admitted into state bars.[5] Gender discrimination also flowed into law schools, as women were primarily barred from admission into legal academic facilities until the turn of the 20th century.[6] Change in law school admittance only occurred as a side effect of both World Wars because many law schools were finally persuaded to admit women stemming from the need to fill in empty seats left open by men who were drafted for war, and even then, schools like Harvard University still fought to keep woman out of enrollment.[7] Even when women were able to attend law school, they still struggled to find employment after graduation.[8]

Nevertheless, women have made great strides in finding access to legal employment and education since the times of Margaret Brent and Arabella Mansfield. The 1960s and 1970s were a particular time of great growth in the legal world, opening doors that were previously closed to women. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement stimulated interest in the legal profession for many women, which was further supported by a majority of law schools removing their bans on female applicants; this combination created a significant increase in new female law students who later became attorneys entering the workforce.[9] In the 1970s, the legal world profoundly changed as the demand for legal work amplified and was met by an increase in firm hiring, including the hiring of women.[10] Legislative movements also helped support the hiring and admittance of female lawyers and law students. In 1972, amendments to Title VII extended antidiscrimination rules to include smaller offices and government agencies, therefore, any firm with fifteen or more employees had to be considerably more careful with making employment decisions and fostering safe workplace environments.[11] The 1972 Amendments to Title IX also aided female law students by reinforcing antidiscrimination policies in law school admittance and scholarships, making it possible for schools to lose federal funding if found culpable of gender discrimination.[12] More recently, “big law” firms have started to set internal policies to help support female lawyers, and one of the most prominent policies is extended paid maternity leave, with some firms offering up to eighteen to twenty weeks.[13]

However, even with such growth and diversification in the legal field, issues still persist. For the sizeable amount of women graduating from law schools over the past few years, there is still a stark difference in how many are actually employed in law firms.[14] The 35% of women who work in firms are consistently found to be in lower ranking positions, making up only 20% of firms’ equity partners.[15] Compensation has also become a hot topic, as there has been an increase in legal suits claiming firms support a pay disparity between genders.[16] Additionally, women are finding it difficult to break into certain legal specialties, particularly the patent and intellectual property fields.[17] Gender discrimination issues continue to extend far beyond what is seen in firms as well, including law school journals, judgeships and general counsels.[18]

So, where can a solution to these issues be found? Many place the focus on “big law” and its need to diversify. In response, “big law” firms emphasize diversification and disparity as key objectives and have instituted diversity groups and hired diversity officers to ensure equality within its own practices.[19] However, the fight to stop gender discrimination can start even before students become lawyers and obtain legal employment. All law students, male and female, can make a difference if they emphasize their desire for diversity in interviews, and then firm recruiters will be forced to react to this changing law school student body. Another way gender discrimination can be fought is through law schools, where career advisors can help 1L female students by providing networking opportunities with established female professionals within the legal field at the beginning of their law school careers. Establishing these professional relationships early on can help female students increase and diversify their legal connections, prepare for job interviews, and obtain a better understanding of the on-campus interviewing process. Many student-led groups already have such programs in place, including Women’s Law Association groups, but an official policy that requires law school career development offices to arrange varying networking opportunities for their female law students can ensure no female students are left behind.

Equality in the legal profession has been a difficult egg for women to crack. Over the past century the fight has been limited to gaining access to a field that was once exclusive to white males. Now that women have finally been able to enroll in law school and find employment in firms, it is time for the next step. Women need a solution to the disparity issues that remain, so a true balance can be seen throughout all areas of the legal profession. While firms, large and small, have started the initiative to diversify, it is never too early for law students to do the same.


[1] See Elizabeth Olson, Women Make Up Majority of U.S. Law Students for First Time, N.Y. Times (Dec. 16, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/16/business/dealbook/women-majority-of-us-law-students-first-time.html [https://perma.cc/G45H-GKWM] (reporting females now make majority of law school enrollees).

[2] See Stephane J. Kirven, Woman in the Judicial System, in Women in the Criminal Justice System: Tracking the Journey of Females and Crime 237, 238 (eds. Tina L. Freiburger & Catherine D. Marcum, 2016) (describing Margaret Brent’s legal practice).

[3] See Louis A. Haselmayer, Belle A. Mansfield: August 23, 1846 – August 1, 1911, 55 Women Law J. 46, 46-47 (1969) (narrating important achievements throughout Mansfield’s life).

[4] See Kirven, supra note 2, at 238 (naming only few women able to practice law in 19th century).

[5] See Bradwell v. State, 83 US 130, 133 (1872) (stating “when the legislature gave to this court the power of granting licenses to practice law, it was with not the slightest expectation that this privilege would be extended to women”).

[6] See Nancy Farrer, Of Ivory Colums and Glass Ceilings: The Impact of the Supreme Court of the United States on the Practice of Women Attorneys in Law Firms, 28 St. Mary’s L.J. 529, 542 (1997) (highlighting many east coast law schools were behind in accepting female applicants).

[7] See Cynthia Grant Bowman, Women in the Legal Profession from the 1920s to the 1970s: What Can We Learn From Their Experience About Law and Social Change? 3 (Cornell Law Faculty Publications, Paper No. 12, 2009) (describing lack of males led to shortage of lawyers); see also Herma Hill Kay, The Future of Women Law Professors, 77 Iowa L. Rev. 5, 8 (1991) (quoting Harvard Law President stating no need to admit females during war, but school admits first females four years later).

[8] See Ferrer, supra note 6, at 547 (explaining struggles women experienced finding employment after law school).

[9] See Kay, supra note 7, at 11 (providing timeline of female growth in legal fields).

[10] See Susan Ehrlich & Nancy C. Jurik, Women Entering the Legal Profession: Change and Resistance, in Doing Justice, Doing Gender: Women in Legal and Criminal Justice Occupations 107, 112-13 (2007).

[11] See id. at 114.

[12] See id. at 115.

[13] See Gayle Cinquegrani, Generous Parental Leave Policies Spreading in Law Firms, Bloomberg Law (Aug. 10, 2017), https://www.bna.com/generous-parental-leave-n73014463014/ [http://perma.cc/NR9X-5HYE] (reporting on several firms’ expansion of maternity leave).

[14] See Elizabeth Olson, ‘A Bleak Picture’ for Women Trying to Rise at Law Firms, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/24/business/dealbook/women-law-firm-partners.html [http://perma.cc/LYby-SU4B] (noting 50.3% of women graduating from law schools but only 35% of women constitute lawyers in firms).

[15] See id.

[16] See id.

[17] See Malathi Nayak, Is Patent Litigation Still a Man’s Game? Yes, Female Lawyers Say, Bloomberg Law: Big Law Business (Jan. 22, 2018) https://biglawbusiness.com/is-patent-litigation-still-a-mans-game-yes-female-lawyers-say [http://perma.cc/T5FK-K69C] (explaining reasons why less women go into technical legal fields).

[18] See generally Commission on Women in the Profession, Am. Bar Ass’n, A Current Glance at Women in the Law: January 2017 (2017), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/marketing/women/current_glance_statistics_january2017.authcheckdam.pdf [http://perma.cc/JRC9-WRR3] (listing different disparities for women in different roles in legal field).

[19] See Bonnie Marcus, How One Law Firm Is Tackling Diversity, Forbes (Oct. 24, 2016), https://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2016/10/24/how-one-law-firm-is-tackling-diversity/#3b75e270758d [http://perma.cc/LEX3-CVRQ] (reporting on Nixon Peabody’s view on promoting diversity).