In a series of articles and editorials in The New York Times last year, journalists and legal industry experts reported and declared, respectively, that law school is for many students a losing proposition. David Segal reported that while an increasing number of students flood law schools every fall, fewer and fewer of those students are able to find meaningful jobs in legal fields. That means that many recent law school graduates find themselves drowning under piles of loan debt; law school tuition, after all, commonly costs more than $50,000 for each year of the three-year Juris Doctor (JD) program .
Why am I discussing this issue on the Women’s Center blog? In the early 1990s, women made up about 50% of law school student bodies; that number has not been matched since then, and that is in decline. In 2010, 47.2% of JD students were women (Graphic: “Women as a Percent of JD Enrollment, 1972-2010”). Even with that decline, many women choose to go to law school every year. Many of these women will encounter difficulties paying for law school, as law firms are cutting back on the number of law school graduates they hire, largely out of dissatisfaction with graduates’ abilities. Many law schools teach theory that is not easy to put into practice, and law firms consider teaching new hires a waste of resources. Additionally, there may be some gender discrimination involved in lawyer hiring. Less than half of new associate lawyers are women, and many of those lawyers are “overrepresented in positions with limited chances for advancement.” In the upper ranks of law firms, women hold only 15% of “partner” positions.
Once hired, and even promoted, women may continue to encounter unique difficulties in their legal careers. At a conference in Washington, D.C. last November women lawyers discussed how their gender impacts their careers. Several speakers shared that they had decided not to get married or have children because, in law firms, associates who can stay late at night and work weekends are sometimes more quickly promoted. Other women described being judged negatively by non-lawyer mothers who criticized their decision to enroll their children in daycare and continue their careers. Tellingly, these women lawyers’ male colleagues had not run into this kind of gendered criticism as often, nor had they had to make difficult decisions about balancing the desire to marry or have children with the desire to advance their careers.
How can we, as women interested in legal careers, prepare ourselves? If you are interested in working in a legal or policy field, make sure to come to “I Object!” on Tuesday, April 10. From 5:30 to 7 PM, three Boston-based women lawyers will discuss their careers, how they handled paying for law school, and how they negotiated family and career conflicts. Come with your questions and your concerns.
It will take more than preparation to change the legal-career climate, however. Women should be able to have both a fulfilling career and the family life they desire. What do you think law schools and/or law firms could do to help women students and lawyers balance work and life? Share your insights and ideas in a comment. It is up to our generation to effect change and enable women to really smash the glass ceiling in legal careers. Currently, the percentage of lawyers who are women is at about 32% and rising slowly; it will take over a century to achieve parity with male lawyers. Additionally, only 22% of federal judges and lawyers are women. This is unacceptable.