Making Strides Towards Gender Equality in the Legal Profession

Making Strides Towards Gender Equality in the Legal Profession

It can be frustrating to say this, but women in the legal profession still face barriers and implicit bias.  As much as we may want to believe that these concerns are behind us, they are not.  The good news is that, together, lawyers across the country are working for gender equity in our profession.

Since I passed the bar in 1983, our profession has made many strides toward leveling the playing field for women lawyers.  But the numbers (and the individual experiences of women in our profession) tell us that much work remains to be done.  Our law schools now graduate slightly more women than men 1) and have been roughly 50% women for some time.  But once women graduate from law school, they leave our profession at alarming rates.  By age 50, women now account for only 27%  2) of the profession. The American Bar Association is in the midst of a major research study to find out why even senior women lawyers leave the practice.  Preliminary findings make clear the pipeline for women lawyers leaks at every stage of their professional career.  Departures are not merely a function of child-raising, as some have long claimed, but continue throughout the lifecycle of women lawyers.

In large law firms, women represent about 19% of equity partners nationwide. 3) Among corporations, women now comprise 28% of general counsel.  In a study published in 2015, the ABA reported that among lawyers appearing as lead counsel in civil federal litigation, a whopping 76% were men and only 24% were women.  The class action bar is even more skewed.  Of the lawyers who designated themselves as lead counsel in a federal class action, 87% were male.  And it goes all the way to the top.  The male justices on the United States Supreme Court interrupt the female justices three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral argument — 65.9% of all interruptions on the Court were directed at women justices. 4

This nationwide concern is getting a nationwide response.  Here are just a couple of examples:

Scores of law firms have signed on to The Mansfield Rule, named after Arabella Mansfield, the first woman admitted to practice in the United States.  These firms have agreed that they will actively consider diverse candidates (including women) for at least 30 percent of open leadership and governance roles in the firm.  This includes equity partner promotions and lateral hires. Many others have signed on to implement formal sponsorship programs designed to retain and promote women attorneys to partnership.  By involving rainmaking partners in the development of women and minority attorneys, these firms are committed to giving underrepresented groups tangible opportunities to develop books of business.

The ABA is continuing its groundbreaking research on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in the Law, focusing on women who leave the profession after 20+ years of practice.  One of the goals is to highlight women who have stayed in the profession and illuminate their career paths for younger women lawyers.

Major law firms across the country, including Snell & Wilmer, have senior staff and partners specifically dedicated to diversity and inclusion initiatives that address the advancement and career needs of their women attorneys.

As we work to eliminate bias in our profession, the Arizona legal profession can be very proud of the amazing achievements of our women lawyers.  Just by way of example, my home state of Arizona produced the first women on the United States Supreme Court, our incomparable Sandra Day O’Connor; the first woman in the nation to serve as Chief Justice of a state supreme court, Lorna Lockwood; the first woman Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit, Mary Schroeder, as well as the soon-to be second woman to hold that position, Mary Murguia.  And my law firm, Snell & Wilmer, just elected a class of partners of 40% women.  I call that progress.

Patricia Lee Refo


ABA and MCCA report on implicit bias in law firms and corporate legal departments: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/diversity/women/initiatives_awards/bias-interrupters/

“Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in the Law”:  https://www.americanbar.org/groups/diversity/women/initiatives_awards/long-term-careers-for-women/

Report on Harvard Seminar: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/office_president/womeninlawsummit_harvard_finalreport.pdf

The Mansfield Rule:  https://www.diversitylab.com/pilot-projects/mansfield-rule/

First Chairs at Trial:  https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/marketing/women/first_chairs2015.pdf

For inspiration about the trailblazing women lawyers of our country: https://abawtp.law.stanford.edu/aba-women-trailblazers-project

Patricia Lee Refo | American Bar Association | July 02, 2019