Women in Law: Has The Glass Ceiling Been Shattered?

As a female attorney who transitioned out of the practice of law, I often wonder if my gender has, or would have, played a role in my career progression as it has for women lawyers in previous centuries. Even in 2017, landing a successful career as a law firm partner at a prestigious firm does not just take dedication and long hours. Female attorneys still find it to be an uphill, and often losing, battle.

The practice of law has changed dramatically since the first US law school opened in 1779. It was not until 90 years later, in 1869, that the first woman lawyer was admitted to any bar in the United States. And it wasn’t until 1995 that the American Bar Association saw its first female president.

A lot may have changed with the practice of law, but a lot has stayed the same since 1779 for female attorneys. In the 20th century, there are women bar associations, women-oriented CLE’s and conferences, and firm maternity leave programs for female attorneys. But, according to The 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report from Law360, progress for women partners is incremental, at best. Even in 2017, men make up more than 65 percent of practicing attorneys in the US, nearly 70 percent of non- equity partners, and over 80 percent of equity partners.

Looking back just a decade, “In 2006, it was virtually unheard of for a woman to be recognized as a superior manager and trusted with the responsibility of leading one of the largest law firms in the country, if not the world.” (Tracking 10 Years Of Women’s Progress In The Legal
Profession, by Staci Zaretski, abovethelaw.com, September 14, 2016.)

Progress for Women Lawyers
While 85% of women lawyers surveyed for a recent study, What Lawyers Need to Know About Gender Bias in the Legal Profession, Lectric Law Library, August 14, 2017, still perceive a subtle gender bias in the legal profession, only 66% agree they are not accepted as equals by their male colleagues. And 2016 found more law firms than ever counting multiple women as their top rainmakers. “In 2016, women run the show at several of the prestigious big law firms in America, and while remarkably few women have ascended to such roles, it’s still a great improvement over the way things used to be,” according to Tracking 10 Years Of Women’s Progress In The Legal Profession, by Staci Zaretsky, Abovethelaw.com, September 14, 2016.

Bias: Conscious or Unconscious?
Yet with less than 20 percent of equity partners in US law firms being women, it seems that bias still exists. It may no longer be direct bias, yet unconscious bias hits just as hard for women lawyers. In the same survey, What Lawyers Need to Know About Gender Bias in the Legal Profession, Lectric Law Library, August 14, 2017, lack of awareness of the unconscious bias was attributed to the current state of gender bias in law firms. As biases are learned behaviors, there is hope that, as more women rise to the top and more men at the top retire, the learned behaviors of the new leaders will show more equality. However, there is just as much chance that the women at the top will find some value in the hardships and lessons they learned on their way up and expect women that follow them to endure the same as a way of proving themselves worthy.

Women Working Together
In the past several decades, women lawyers have teamed up to promote each other and educate others on the existing biases in law firm settings. The Women in Law Empowerment Forum was created in 2007 as a way to begin dialogue, create education opportunities and provide networking for women in law firms. Today they offer a certification that emphasizes leadership roles achieved by equity women partners. To receive the 2017 Gold Standard Certification, a firm must meet four or more criteria based on the role and number of women equity partners. As of June 1, 2017, seven law firms have met all seven criteria, including 20% of their equity partners, or alternatively, 33% or more of the attorneys becoming equity partner during the past twelve months are women.

Progress, But Is It Enough?
Is there as much progress as Ada Kepley would have wanted 147 years after she became the first female to graduate law school in the United States? Probably not, but it is a start. Hopefully the next 147 years will bring more parallel careers and quicker progress for male and female attorneys.
Stay tuned for future articles on law firms and gender bias.

Author Carrie Titus is Director of Sales & Marketing for PohlmanUSA. She joined the company in 2013, adding a rare blend of legal and client development experience to the firm. Carrie oversees all sales and marketing efforts, including existing and prospective client communications, sales presentations, strategic communications and advertising. She has been active in the legal profession since 2001 as an attorney practicing family law and as a legal recruiter.