Bar News - April 20, 2016
President’s Perspective: We’ve Come a Long Way… Maybe?
By: Mary E. Tenn
Recently, I attended the investiture for the first woman to be presidentially appointed as United States Attorney for the District of New Hampshire – Emily Gray Rice. It has been 227 years since our state’s first United States Attorney, and in 2016 a woman finally has been appointed by the President to this important role.
Indeed, New Hampshire now has an impressive list of female lawyers and leaders. We have our first female chief justice and a female associate justice on our Supreme Court. We also have women in the roles of Article III federal judge, federal magistrate, chief justice of the NH Superior Court, and on both the Superior Court and Circuit Court benches. We have two female United States senators, a female representative in the US House, a female governor and female counsel to the governor. No doubt, female lawyers are center stage in New Hampshire.
Certainly, none of these lawyers finds herself in her position because she is a woman. But, there is something historic to be recognized that they all are women.
Despite the presence of these female lawyers in positions of influence, questions remain about the success of women in the profession writ large. The number of women entering the legal profession has increased significantly, often rivaling the number of men. Women have reached the highest levels, with women holding three of the nine seats on the United States Supreme Court and a female United States Attorney General. Yet, the percentage of women in top leadership positions falls well below their numbers in the profession generally, and women are exiting the profession at concerning rates.
Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession recently released preliminary results from the HLS Career Study. The study tracked the career trajectory of the school’s graduates, with respondents from four graduating classes (1975, 1985, 1995 and 2000).
While there are significant points of interest in the female lawyer’s early entrance into the profession, the current data confirm that HLS graduates are now paid roughly the same for similar work when they enter the profession – i.e. male and female lawyers entering Big Law earn about the same starting salaries, as do male and female lawyers in public sector jobs.
Income disparities emerge with more men taking on higher-paying firm jobs in New York City than their female counterparts, and especially after the initial years of law practice – both favoring men. Interestingly, men entering the business sector upon graduation are more likely to take positions in which they do not practice law, while their female counterparts are more likely to remain in law practice as in-house counsel, which also leads to pay disparities between the sexes.
Other survey findings include:
- Virtually all respondents practiced law as their first job, with some 60 percent entering law firms; just over one-third of graduates enter the public sector, with women slightly more represented in the public sector than men;
- With respect to current/most recent jobs, women are significantly more likely to be working part-time or not to be in the paid workforce;
- Men are significantly more likely to be in positions of leadership in law firms;
- Women in law firms work, on average, more hours than men;
- The percentage of married male partners far outpaces the percentage of married female partners; and the percentage of female partners who have never been married is significantly greater than male partners;
- Twice as many female partners reported having zero children; and female respondents report feeling significantly more adverse workplace consequences, including loss of seniority, as a result of having a child;
- Women who become partners are more likely to have had more mentors during their first five years of practice than women who are not partners;
- Both female and male respondents report steady movement away from law firms, with women reportedly leaving at a slightly higher rate; and
- Neither men nor women report being particularly satisfied with the control they have over their work and personal lives.
We know the legal profession is in the midst of rapid change, with the emergence of non-traditional legal service providers, technological developments and new competitive pressures. The study authors note the very real danger that many of the disparities identified have become “even more pronounced as the pressures on all lawyers have been ratcheted up as the legal economy has slowed down.”
As we celebrate the accomplishments of the many talented female lawyers in New Hampshire and beyond, concerns about gender inequality persist and remain a challenge to the profession.
The survey authors note: “Indeed, given America’s commitment to, in the words inscribed above the door of the Supreme Court, Equal Justice Under Law, a legal world in which women lawyers have less opportunity to succeed than their male peers threatens the very legitimacy with which the public views the law, lawyers, and the legal profession.”
It is important to recognize that equal opportunity for female lawyers at all levels is essential to our profession’s continued vitality. Although the experience of women in the profession is evolving, there is more work to be done. It requires the deliberate attention of male and female lawyers working together to advance the discussion about the complex ways gender continues to impact the profession and what we all can do to ensure equality in the profession at all levels.