Women in the Law: Are Women Set Up to Fail?

December 2, 2016

Ed. Note: At Hire an Esquire, we aim to bring you fresh, relevant perspectives from around the legal industry. We’re partnering with Law School Transparency to bring you Women in the Law, a podcast mini-series and related articles that examine the many professional and personal challenges that women continue to face as members of the legal profession. You can’t deny the facts outlined in this week’s podcast. Women have a difficult time succeeding in law before they even enter the profession.

Women make up 57% of college graduates, but only 51% percent of all law school applicants. For those who apply, women are less likely to be admitted than men—80% of men are admitted to law school, while only 76% of women are admitted.

Even once they are admitted, women tend to go to schools ranked worse than those men generally attend. This plays a big role in getting jobs. At the top 11 law schools, which have at least an 85% job placement rate for jobs that require a law degree, 46% of the attendees are women.  

In fact, there is a negative correlation between top law schools and the percentage of women attendees. The more likely you are to get a job after graduating from a particular law school, the lower their women attendance rate is.

And this is all on top of the uneven outcomes for women once they manage to enter legal practice.

The American Bar Association - Commission on Women in the Profession’s 2016 report indicates that only 36% of all lawyers are women. At the largest firms, women fare better in some ways and worse in others: 21.5% of partners, 18% of equity partners, 44.7% of associates, and 47.8% of summer associates are women. At the 200 largest firms, 18% of managing partners are women. In the corporate world, 24% of the Fortune 500 General Counsels are women. At the Fortune 501-1000, only 19% are GCs.

Female equity partner

Not only is there a discrepancy at the top tiers in private and corporate practice, the weekly salaries are staggering too. In 2014, women lawyers’ weekly salary as a percentage of male lawyers’ salary is at 83%! This is true even for equity partners in the top 200 largest law firms. At the median, the typical female equity partner in the 200 largest firms earns 80% of the compensation earned by the typical male partner.

Yes, women have come a long way in the last 50 years. In 1965, 1/25 applicants to law school were women. In 1975, 1 in 4 were women. In 1980, 1 in 3. And in 2000, nearly half of all applicants were women. But despite the applicants rising steadily, the pay has not equalized and neither have acceptance rates.

The first step is to diagnose the problem. Why are women not drawn into the profession? Do they want to rise to the top? If the answer to the latter is in the affirmative, which evidence points to, then adequate steps need to be taken to equalize the playing field.

Fortunately, scholars, diversity professionals, and bar associations are hard at work diagnosing the problem and deciding what to do. As Professor Deborah Rhode pointed out during the podcast, unconscious bias, in-group favoritism, and work-life issues need to be one focus if women are to have the same opportunity to succeed from the beginning. And checks-and-balances need to be placed through law firms to ensure that they are not set back during their journey.

Law firms can take proactive steps to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men in the legal profession, from the interviewee stage to equity partner. Firms like Seyfarth Shaw, named one of the 50 “Best Law Firms for Women,” have formed an entire group in their firm dedicated to diversity and inclusion, and others should follow.

Proactive steps that firms can take include removing names from resumes to limit the impact of subconscious gender bias, and collaborating with professional organizations and industry experts (like Law360) to conduct audits of the firm’s diversity profile. Such audits allow firms to assess whether there are gaps and, if so, figure out to fill them.

Furthermore, law firms can provide: flexible working hours or telecommuting opportunities for new parents; maternity and paternity leave; accommodations in the workspace for new mothers, and mentorship programs to raise their profile and improve their chances at being named partner.

Even if these programs are implemented, however, getting the support of the entire firm is necessary in order to ensure that everyone adheres to these changing standards. Enforcing individual accountability and measuring overall success on a regular basis is vital to the long-term success of women in the profession.

While the top 50 “Best Law Firms for Women” are making headway in implementing these structural and climatic shifts, even they have a long way to go: the inclusion rate of female Equity partners is staggeringly low at 19.84%, with Non-Equity at 30.95% and reduced hours at only 9.86%. As such, industry-wide progress is sure to be slow – but with so much at stake, it’s imperative that the change begins today.


For more ideas and examples of what other firms are doing to ensure diversity and inclusion, visit Working Mother.

Mary Redzic is a lawyer, product marketing manager @meruscase, blogger (http://disrupt.legal), and founder of http://shapethelaw.com