Jobs and Careers

How Far Have Women Lawyers Come? Not Far Enough

| by National Womens Law Center

by Emily J. Martin, Vice President, 
National Women's Law Center

In November of 2005, then-dean of Harvard Law School Elena Kagan gave a speech to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York about the status of women in the legal profession. She acknowledged that women had made a great deal of progress in recent years, but she noted that women were still extremely underrepresented in the top positions across the legal profession. Specifically, she said, “Women lawyers are not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers. And that is troubling not only for the women whose aspirations are being frustrated, but also for the society that is losing their talents. What we have here is a kind of brain drain, and we are all the poorer for it.”

It’s been five years since Kagan’s speech, but her words are still apt – especially for women of color. Today, 31% of all lawyers are women, but only 19.2% of law firm partners and 17% of general counsels of Fortune 500 companies. Minority women make up only 1.8% of law firm partners and 1.8% of Fortune 500 general counsels. In 2010, women are 29.8% of federal circuit court judges and 28.8% of federal district court judges (thanks in part to President Obama’s recent nominations). Women are 20.6% of law school deans and 28.8% of tenured or tenure-track law school faculty (as compared to 53.9% of contract faculty). Only 5.9% of tenured or tenure-track law school faculty are minority women (as compared to 11.6% of contract faculty).

This is not to diminish the progress that women have made in the legal profession. When former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Ginsburg graduated from law school, women made up only about 3 percent of lawyers. And even as recently as 1988, women made up only one fifth of the legal profession. They were only 7.4% of federal judges, 7.2% of state court judges, 8% of partners at the largest law firms, and 11% of tenured law school professors. But the gap between women in the profession and women in prestigious or leadership positions is still so significant that we continue to celebrate every broken barrier — like the one that Elena Kagan will break when she is confirmed to the Supreme Court.