Women in the Law

Women’s success in legal careers: Lack of advancement is not a 'woman' problem, it’s a 'profession' problem

  • Print.

ABA President Patricia Lee Refo

ABA President Patricia Lee Refo. Photo courtesy of ABA Media Relations.

A June 29 ABA Journal column by Susan Smith Blakely titled “Are women lawyers paying enough attention to upward mobility?” offered opinions that are antithetical to the core beliefs and principles of the American Bar Association.

The lack of upward mobility by women in the profession is not because women are not putting in the time and effort, nor is it because they are distracted by other concerns in their lives. Legal employers have plenty of systemic issues that need to be faced head-on when it comes to the promotion and retention of women attorneys. Blaming women attorneys is appalling.

This is not a “woman” problem. It is a legal profession problem rooted in outdated workplace structures.

Women lawyers are not a homogenous group who all share the same life experiences or home situations. We should not be lecturing women lawyers on how they should adjust their lives to achieve success.

Certainly, no woman should ever be told she must choose between her career and her family. It is incumbent upon the profession to create a fair and equitable playing field for women. The American Bar Association, which has been led by 10 women presidents, including four of the last five, knows that female lawyers stay in jobs where the culture, policies and practices foster their success and career satisfaction.

The ABA is and has been deeply committed to securing the full and equal participation of women in the ABA, the profession, and the justice system, and we will continue to do what is necessary to achieve this.

The entire association works to secure equal participation by producing timely reports, studies and recommendations to help law firms and other legal employers address persistent gender inequities in our profession, engage men as allies, and combat sexual harassment.

There are many theories and anecdotal evidence as to why women are leaving the profession or are not being promoted as frequently as male lawyers, but anecdotes do not change perception—data does. The ABA has funded research on the legal careers of women lawyers, including surveys, focus groups, studies of long-term career trajectories of women lawyers, and investigations of the issues faced by women lawyers of color and women lawyers over the age of 55.

The 2019 ABA report Walking Out the Door, focuses on the long-term experiences of women in the nation’s 500 largest firms. The 2020 ABA report In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Law Firms and the Profession, finds that there is no one reason why women are leaving the profession.

Our research revealed that 45% of the women reported they had been denied proper access to business development opportunities because of their gender. In contrast, just 6% of men felt the same way. Focus groups highlighted stories from women lawyers who believed they were used as a diversity token in a meeting. Many reported that credit for work they had done had been stolen by a male colleague.

Women in their 50s, even those with significant accomplishments, told us they feel invisible. Younger associates complain about receiving lesser assignments that limit their ability to advance. Experienced attorneys describe success fatigue; women attorneys get tired of working harder to achieve the same level of success as men and say, “I’m done.”

Implicit bias also figures into the problem. Most people do not believe they have it, and when they are called out on it, they rationalize their behavior. In fact, one survey found that 67% of women lawyers perceive they are immediately treated as less committed to the profession when they disclose they are becoming a mother. But men are considered more committed when they become a parent. Studies show implicit bias is a major factor in the pay gap between the sexes.

One woman described the career obstacles faced by women lawyers as “death by a thousand cuts.”

These reports offer suggestions to turn the situation around. They include developing a strategy and setting targets to meet specific goals, providing resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that are faced more often by women than men, assessing the impact of firm policies and practices on female lawyers, increasing lateral hiring of women, and ensuring that there is a critical mass of female partners on key firm committees. At the World Law Congress International Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Madrid this week, which some of us attended, much praise and admiration were bestowed upon the late U.S. Supreme Court justice—and rightly so.

But it is important to remember that after graduating first in her class from Columbia Law School in 1959, Ginsburg received no job offer from any law firm in New York City. She was one of the greatest legal minds of our generation, and later said of the snub, “A Jew, a woman and a mother, that was a bit much. Three strikes put me out of the game.”

Much has changed since 1959. Ginsburg was only one of nine women in her law school class when she was at Harvard and was asked to justify why she was taking the spot away from men. Today, women make up 54% of law school students. In 1970, women made up only 3% of the profession compared to 37% today.

But biases against women persist in the profession. Despite the larger numbers of women at law firms, only 21% are equity partners, and only 2% are women of color. The higher a woman rises in a law firm, the greater the chance she will be one of the few females in the room.

We will not stand by and watch half of the legal profession walk out the door, taking their skills and experience just when they should be at their most effective. That’s terrible business for the profession and terrible for clients. And it is wrong.

Women lawyers deserve a fair and equitable workplace where the policies and ethos allow them to thrive and does not drive them away. We can do much, much better—for individual women lawyers, for the legal profession and for our clients.

Signed by the 10 ABA women presidents:

Roberta Cooper Ramo, 1995-96

Martha W. Barnett, 2000-01

Karen J. Mathis, 2006-07

Carolyn B. Lamm, 2009-10

Laurel G. Bellows, 2012-13

Paulette Brown, 2015-16

Linda Klein, 2016-17

Hilarie Bass, 2017-18

Judy Perry Martinez, 2019-20

Patricia Lee Refo, 2020-21

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.