How to Boost Gender Equality in the Legal Profession

In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we’re proud to launch an #IBelongHere campaign. Women leaders belong in the boardroom, the courtroom and everywhere else. Keep reading to learn about a few ways the legal industry can help elevate its female colleagues. And, if you’re looking for advice from a fantastic female legal leader, watch this video Q&A with Special Counsel SVP Amanda Ellis.

Three out of eight U.S. Supreme Court justices are women, the greatest number in our country’s history. They account for 37.5 percent of the panel, which interestingly, is close to the same percentage of female lawyers in the United States – 36 percent.

Roughly half of current law school students are female, a far cry from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s experience at Harvard Law in the 1950s, where she was one of a handful of women in a class of more than 500 students. As a woman and the mother of a young child, she faced blatant sexism and discrimination, issues that today’s female attorneys continue to battle.

Indeed, just 18 percent of the managing partners at the 200 largest law firms are women, according to statistics compiled by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. Women account for 18 percent of equity partners and barely 25 percent of the general counsels of Fortune 500 companies.

In recognition of International Women’s Day, these are key areas where law firms, lawyers and in-house legal departments can step up to improve opportunities for women:

Pay fairly:

Female attorneys continue to earn less than their male counterparts. Though the gap has shrunk in the past decade—in 2005, women lawyers’ weekly salary was 77.5 percent of men’s, while in 2015, it was 89.7 percent—that’s small consolation to anyone who is coming up short.

Conducting a detailed compensation analysis to determine if employees are paid equally for comparable work requires time, expense and effort. Salesforce committed to that level of introspection and discovered gender-related pay disparities. The software company spent $3 million to adjust workers’ pay—and recently vowed to continue its efforts.

Support role models:

“The lack of exemplary role models at law firms is a subtle but significant obstacle to women as well as minorities,” said Luanne Sacks, a founding partner at Sacks, Ricketts & Case in San Francisco. Ideally, every attorney should be able to look around a conference table and have a satisfying answer to the question, “Who do I see who looks like me in a leadership position and where I could see myself in 20 years?”

Call out bias:

“It’s up to each of us to interrupt bias in its tracks,” said Linda Bray Chanow, executive director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. Prejudices may include what’s been dubbed by the Harvard Business Review as the “maternal wall,” the misconception that mothers are less dedicated to their careers than their colleagues. This perception can lead bosses to downplay or question women’s skills, give them less challenging work and ultimately, shortchange them financially.

Be more flexible:

Thanks to technology, lawyers in virtual law firms can do their jobs almost anywhere and anytime. Rewarding productivity and results rather than “face time” at a desk in an office can foster a culture that helps workers balance their careers and personal lives.

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