Last month, the New York Times published a sobering reminder that thirty years after the appointment of the first female justice to the Supreme Court, a glass ceiling remains for women in the legal profession. Women largely remain ghettoized in the lower positions in the legal profession: women comprise 45 percent of law firm associates but among equity partners in the AmLaw 200, they are only 6 percent. In other words, women are putting in the work, but not reaping the ultimate benefits of the firm hierarchy. Are the 55 percent of starting associates who are men really so much more competent and qualified that they deserve to constitute 94 percent of the equity partners? Or is something structural skewing the numbers? Consider also that partnership status (and the money, connections, and prestige that accompany it) can be a boon for judicial nominees. This makes it is less surprising, though no less disappointing, that only 22 percent of the federal judiciary is female.
When firms are confronted with their dismal track record on gender equality, their first defense is often to point a finger at law schools: problems with the pipeline of legal talent prevent parity further down. And, yes, it does seem like law schools are failing to live up to their ideals. Female law students were only 41% of the Stanford Law School's 180 person class in 2013. It strains belief that in a year where the economy created a bumper crop of applications, a high ranked law school could only find 73.8 women willing to attend. Really? Worse yet, NYU Law School has only 40 percent women in its 2014 class. I ran these numbers against a statistical significance calculator used by the NYCLU in its disparate impact cases and guess what? Whether you chose a background of 51 percent women in the population or 58 percent women among BA recipients, this outcome is highly statistically significant.
Unfortunately, employers and law schools have created a negative feedback loop. Firms blame schools for pipeline problems. Schools argue that fewer women are applying to law school -the implication is that women are wising up to their dismal career options. As bulky, prestige-obsessed and slow-to-change institutions, firms and law schools are not courageous enough to break this cycle on their own. Without incentives to change the current situation, the gender gap will only widen.
Here are some pressure points that might help. On the firm side, partners listen to clients who listen to customers. If activists focus on the bottom line of major, consumer-facing corporations, they can incentivize a push for diversity in the legal profession. Seeing female lawyers in positions of power may inspire more women to apply to law school. On the school side, admitted students, enrolled students, faculty and alumni need to push law schools on gender equality. As organizations not formally motivated by profit, there is no single lever on which to push law schools administrators; they will respond only when voices of protest have multiplied and unified. And when law schools take their obligation to the public seriously, perhaps we will see more parity in the profession. Until that happens, this battle must be fought on at least these two fronts if any progress is to be made.
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.
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