Thirty years ago this month, Sandra Day O’Connor heard her first cases on the Supreme Court. Many thought her appointment would herald the shattering of the law’s glass ceiling, but at best it only cracked.
Decades later, the profession is still resistant to putting women in leadership positions, and many women have abandoned the law altogether. Women still make up less than one-third of American lawyers, even though they have made up almost half of new law-school graduates for the last two decades. In law firms, women make up 45 percent of associates but only 15 percent of equity partners and 6 percent of equity partners at the 200 largest firms.
More women have joined the bench in the last three decades, but progress in that arena has been slow as well. While three women are on the Supreme Court, as of last year women made up only 22 percent of the federal judiciary and 26 percent of state judges. No state has equal representation of women on the bench.
Women with children are having the hardest time staying in the profession. They are half as likely to be hired, a recent Cornell study found, when compared with childless women with similar qualifications.
Even when women do not have children, bias is reflected in the major factors that shape careers in law firms — evaluations, assignments and compensation — according to a landmark report from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession.
The presumption that women are less devoted to their jobs means that they often have to show more evidence of achievement than men. Even when their legal work is outstanding, women have tended to get fewer opportunities because of how work is assigned through the buddy system. And pay for female lawyers is generally less — the median income is 74 percent of what men earn — with the gap widening as they move higher. Another study has found that some 90 percent of female lawyers report having encountered sex discrimination in the profession, a percentage that has not decreased since the 1970s.
Some women do succeed in private law firms, especially if they fit the traditional model of the lawyer who can leave family responsibilities to a stay-at-home partner or a nanny. But that model represents only one-sixth of the work force, and is outmoded. There are ways to retain more women in the law. Flexible schedules can work well, but to end their stigma men need to choose to use them as well as women. And firms must have transparent systems for evaluating, assigning and paying lawyers.
Legal employers should understand that unless they retain a higher share of women, the profession will continue to lose talented lawyers. It will fail to be a profession that embodies gender equality — what many thought the O’Connor selection promised to bring.