Despite surging numbers of female lawyers, bias against women remains entrenched in the legal profession and results in steep inequities of pay, promotion and opportunity, according to an American Bar Association panel’s report, the first of its kind in eight years.
“We expected that our evaluation would yield evidence of steady progress,” said Laurel Bellows, a Chicago lawyer and chairwoman of the Commission on Women in the Profession, which produced the report.
“Our predictions were, unfortunately, too optimistic. Now, we must say that the passage of time and number of women is not going to cure this problem.”
Though women now sit on the Supreme Court, head the Justice Department and preside over the bar association itself, the stubborn barriers faced by rank and file female lawyers are reflected in pay disparities at every level of experience and in all types of legal practice, the report found.
And in the profession’s highest echelons, in law firm partnerships, law school faculties and on the bench, the percentage of women, while increasing, remains inexcusably low, the report says, when measured against huge increases in the numbers of qualified women.
In many respects, commission members noted, the findings fly in the face of a perception among male lawyers that the professional playing field has not merely been leveled, but has tilted in favor of women, who now comprise about 23 percent of all the nation’s lawyers and nearly half of all law students.
This perception was voiced repeatedly in a male focus group at the ABA’s midyear meeting in Miami said the organization’s former president William Falsgraf, a Cleveland lawyer who was vice chairman of the first ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.
He said of the men: “Particularly the younger ones were saying, ‘This has gone far enough,’ and, ‘We’re having a heck of a time finding jobs in the law, and if we even find them they’re not very good, and it’s time to stop giving one group of people special consideration because we’re all in trouble.’ “
But studies cited by the commission suggest that in fact, women have been disproportionately hurt by the recent shrinking of law firms after a rapid expansion in the 1980s.
A 1995 study of eight large New York City firms, for example, found that promotion rates for women, which were already lower than the rates for men, dropped to 5 percent from 15 percent among those who were hired after 1981 and were considered for partnership in the recessionary 1990s.
Promotion rates for their male counterparts declined less, to 17 percent, from 21 percent.