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Women and the Law: Time To Take Two Steps Forward and No Steps Back

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

This LPS post is by Claudia Stantzyk-Guzek, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

Women and the Law: Time To Take Two Steps Forward and No Steps Back

For minority women, the statistics are even more stark, with only 3.22% representation in the largest law firms with more than 700 attorneys. Meanwhile, women continue to fail to be recognized for their contributions such as among the nation’s top 100 law firms, where women are actually responsible for 80% of the client billings credited to men. Of all lawyers appearing as lead counsel on a case, only 24% were women, meaning that on any given case men are three times more likely to play the role of lead counsel. On the judiciary, women only represent 33% of all active federal district court judges, and 35.9% of all active circuit court of appeals judges. While three of the current nine Supreme Court Justices are women, only four of the entire 112 ever to serve on the highest court have been women.

If you type “female representation in the law” into Google, these sources and hundreds more appear documenting the current diversity disparity in the legal profession. While there has been progress, this progress remains marginal and there is still plenty of room for growth. As a young female student and future female associate, the status of women in the legal profession concerns me. While law schools have done increasingly well in including and mentoring female attorneys, statistics like the ones listed above seem to imply that I am unlikely to be as “successful” as my male counterparts once I actually enter the profession.

In discussing the pay gap with a friend once, he implied that this gap is due to women’s choices. This same logic can be extended toward the disparities listed above between male and female equity partners. There are arguments floating around that these numbers are lower for women because they prioritize other areas, such as focusing on family. This can’t be the only reason. I have met many powerful, successful women who balance home life and work life, just as I have met many successful men who are also incredibly active in their family life. Despite this, the stereotype still prevails and these statistics above only serve to exemplify that there must be some other impediment to women’s ascension in the legal profession.

It is true that it could be that women are leaving the profession to focus on family life. It could also be true, however, that there are fewer opportunities for women in the legal profession. Or that there are less opportunities announced to women, or that women are not promoted internally because they are not the name that get tossed in the ring, or that women do not feel comfortable seeking those higher positions. It is amazing what a difference it makes to see a female partner in action as a young attorney. At several of the firms I interviewed with this past August, I asked to meet with female partners to gain perspective on their experience at the firm. Just walking into their offices, seeing their success and their intellect and passion for their work, it inspired me as a young attorney to one day seek partnership myself. Not every firm has this, however.

At firms where the number of female partners is significantly lower compared to their male counterparts, that disparity is only magnified because young female attorneys doubt their abilities to get such a position. These biases and potential stereotypes also extend to a woman’s perceived efficacy at her job, which is something that also may hinder female attorneys. For example, female litigators who zealously advocate for their clients are seen as overly aggressive, whereas their male counterparts are seen as merely advocating for their client. Women who raise their voices in the courtroom are seen as shrill, whereas men who do the same are seen as simply being aggressive. There are also stereotypes that may not only externally affect women, but internally affect them as well such as the idea that female attorneys have to work twice as hard as men to get half as far. Further mechanisms need to be put in place to help balance out these negative stereotypes, to provide women with the opportunity for mentorship and advancement, and to incentivize this progress.

I also do not think wanting a balanced work and family life should be something that young professionals (especially women) should be hesitant to express. The legal profession is incredibly demanding, it is true, but there are plenty of other demanding professions where individuals are able to make it work. I think the difference between the law and those professions is the negative stereotype attached to women who want this family life. While these things are not a present consideration for me, plenty of my female classmates felt uncomfortable about asking about maternity leave, flex time, and other important considerations in later interviews out of concern that they would be seen as less committed to their career. There is nothing wrong with wanting it all, and I think female attorneys should feel comfortable with and be encouraged to be honest about these desires.

While I think firms are making a bigger step towards inclusivity of female associates, I really think it is in the upper echelons of firm management where women are greatly underrepresented. I would like to see firms putting more programs in place to mentor female attorneys to achieve these higher positions, and to achieve a more equalized workplace expectation for female and male attorneys. Meritocracy should be the name of the game in the legal profession, and while steps have been taken to recognize and reward female attorneys for their work and their drive, there is still so much more to be done.