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The Truth About Women Lawyers

Updated on April 13, 2016
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Deborah A. Morrison is an internationally recognized author and transformational life coach from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She is inspired

Stratification of the Legal Profession

Divisions of gender result in the stratification of the legal profession into two distinct hemispheres. Once almost exclusively a white, male enclave, the legal profession is now admitting significant numbers of women as lawyers. However, women are being relegated to the bottom of the legal hierarchy. Stratification in the legal profession is associated with gender differences.


Changes in the Legal Profession

In the last two to three decades, the North American legal profession has undergone significant changes. There is now a dramatic increase in the number of female lawyers. The legal profession was once almost exclusively dominated by white, male lawyers. From 1950-1980, the number of lawyers more than doubled, and the dominance of private legal practices had given way to the emergence of large legal firms. l The new patterns are sufficiently clear to indicate significant gender biases that have emerged within the legal profession.

Sociography of the Legal Profession

The principal source for the sociography of the American legal profession is the Lawyer statistical Report, prepared by the American Bar Foundation of 1984. The legal profession's trends over the last twenty years are now being evaluated by various authors. Richard Abel's article attempts to identify changes that have occurred and will continue to occur in the American legal profession. Abel's analysis is only one of several competing theoretical interpretations. I will focus on Abel's analyses of gender bias issues in relation to the American legal profession, even though he also associates stratification according to race, age, and class.

The number of people entering the legal profession declined greatly during the depression and the Second World War. As a result, those in the legal profession grew older. After the war, the legal profession was dominated by 90% private practitioners, and among them 60% were solo practitioners. Many women were denied entry into law schools until the 1950s and 1960s. Female lawyers composed less than five percent of the legal profession in 1970.

At the beginning of the 1960s, American lawyers were overwhelmingly white, male, and private practitioners. The American Bar Association functioned as the gatekeeper, controlling the number of lawyers produced, and further controlling their characteristics. Gender was one predominant characteristic that was controlled, since women were almost completely excluded from the legal profession.


Where Have The Female Lawyers Gone?

For more than a decade, women have been entering the legal profession in record numbers. In Canada and the U.S., women constitute approximately 50 per cent of law school students, and according to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the majority of lawyers who have been in practice five years or less are women.

But instead of moving toward partnership, women are leaving the profession in droves. Those who remain often become in-house counsel at corporations or government agencies, non-profits or educational institutions, where the focus typically isn't on face time or billable hours. As a result, women account for less than 20 per cent of partners in North American law firms.

- Where Have All The Female Lawyers Gone - Andrea Lekushoff

Features of Control, Composition, and Structure of the Legal Profession

After assessing the changes in the legal profession during the last two to three decades, the features of control, composition, and structure have dramatically changed. Restrictions on the production of lawyers created an imbalance between the supply and demand of legal services. Starting salaries for associates in large firms earned seven thousand dollars in the mid-1960s, and yet command fifty thousand dollars twenty years later. The number of lawyers produced has dramatically increased. In the mid-1980s, the rate of production has leveled at more than three times what it was in the mid-1960s because of the reduced barriers for entering into the profession, as well as the growth in the percentage of the population that is receiving higher education.

Women Lawyers - Twelve Years Later -

Women Lawyers - The Inside Story -

The VIDEO on the right provides the inside story of women as lawyers in the legal profession. In this video you will hear directly from a variety of female lawyers, about their professional experience in the legal world.

Judgement, Justice, and Order in the Legal Profession

Production of Lawyers and Declining Control

The declining control in the production of lawyers has also resulted in the declining control over reduction by lawyers, since the greater number of lawyers must now compete aggressively with each other. Elder lawyer's restrictive practices tend to favor the more established practitioner, and thereby limit the professional privilege of younger lawyers. Most female lawyers would be included in the younger division of the legal profession.

Many of the same forces that account for the growth in the legal profession also account for the changes in its composition. In the mid-1980s, women represented nearly forty percent of the entire legal profession. an important question however, is how women will be distributed according to professional stratification.

Stratification in Terms of Prestige and Wealth of Legal Profession

For the last two to three decades lawyers have become increasingly stratified in terms of prestige and wealth. The echelon of one's stratification is impacted by such variables as clients served, subject matter specialization, employment versus independent practice, firm size and one's location within the public or private sectors. The growth in the legal profession and the erosion of restrictive practices have intensified this stratification. The upper echelon lawyers are composed of older, white males, who enjoy ever-increasing amounts f wealth, power, and status. Consequently, disproportionate numbers of female lawyers are relegated to the bottom of the legal hierarchy. Many of them find their way to the bottom of the work pyramid because of law school grades that reflect inadequate prior education, continuing economic disadvantage, discrimination, and sometimes by their commitment to work that promotes social justice, but offers minimal financial rewards.

Women now account for almost 30 percent of
the profession, but only about 15% of federal judges and
law firm partners, 10% of law school deans and general
counsels, and 5% of managing partners of large firms.

- Deborah L. Rhode

Equal Justice Under Law

The Future of Women Lawyers

Thus, the future of women lawyers is more complex than their male colleagues, partly due to patriarchal relations within the family, and partly due to discrimination at work. Nevertheless, women do at least as well as men at law school. Many female lawyers have joined large firms, although they attain partnership more slowly and less frequently than men.

During the mid-1960s to the mid 1980s period, there has been a dramatic growth in the legal profession that has resulted in a small percentage of elderly white men governing a very large percentage of younger lawyers with significant female membership. the younger generation of lawyers will not ascent to positions of power for approximately another 10-20 yrs. The strongly gerontocratic character of the legal profession, and the sharp divergence between the bosses (males) and the bossed (females), generates considerable tension in relation to gender bias.

the ability of a
small, dedicated
group of people
to change the
world; indeed
it’s the only
thing that has
ever changed
the world.

Margaret Mead

Forecast of Increasing Tensions of the Legal Profession

The above information provides a clear historical overview of the legal profession, as well as, forecasting the increasing tensions that result in hierarchical stratification within the legal profession. The sociological perspective demonstrates that gender bias is effectively inherent within the legal system as a social construct, that results in the oppression of female lawyers. Elderly, white male lawyers hold the position of prestige and power with the profession and operate with self-interest. The result is the emergence of male lawyers as rulers with the female lawyers as ruled, not due to meritocracy, but rather due to the patriarchal social construction of gender inequalities.

Conclusively, the researched information presented in this article provides a persuasive argument, that reinforces the sociological perspective, of societal impact, as the source of the inequality between the gender roles in the legal profession. The societal institution of law emerges as a social construct that enforces and reinforces the inequalities between the male and female gender roles. Male supremacy, wealth, and power are legitimized through the legal profession, as is female suppression and inferiority.


Law and Society Review, 1986, The Transformation of the American Legal Profession

Solutions in Progress for Women Lawyers

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    • deborahmorrison1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Deborah Morrison 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

      "The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied, but written off as trash" - John Berger

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      I totally agree with you, Deborah. The income and wealth gaps in this world are abominable. yet the entrenched interests continue to fight the minimum wage and a fairer and more progressive tax system. It is a sad state of affairs.

    • deborahmorrison1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Deborah Morrison 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

      Thank You for your comment HSchneider, and yes, I agree with you about the necessity of creating gender equality in all industries. And, further to this, to create a more healthy and just society by creating less financial disparities, and less social stratification based on $$$. And, by this I am refering to more financial equity for men and women in our society. The gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' is heart-breaking, and largely a social construct. Selfishness and greed must give way to compassion and generosity in order to create a healthy, vibrant society. As we uplift one another we will all benefit by living in a better, more beautiful world.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting and disturbing information, Deborah. I would have thought that the legal profession would have had a better sense of fairness. Yet I am still not surprised. This situation is symptomatic of the workplace in general. Most of the people in charge are men so this situation rarely changes quickly if at all. We need as a society to insist upon gender equality in all industries. This will be better for women and society as a whole. Thumbs up to your Hub and analysis.

    • deborahmorrison1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Deborah Morrison 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

      Thank you for sharing your life experience in the legal world. Your experience confirms my researched information about women lawyers. And, unfortunately, these same types of professional challenges are, believe it or not, still integrated into many aspects of our lives from family roles, to professional roles of all types, and everything in between. The end result of this type of disparity in gender roles is the financial inequity, that in general, still remains between women and men. Although we have come a long way, there are still so many more steps we need to take as a society, to bring justice for one and all.

    • NayNay2124 profile image


      4 years ago

      Deborahmorrison1, this hub is truly accurate. I have worked as a Legal Secretary for many years working for men and woman lawyers. I found that although the women lawyers I worked for were partners in the firm, they still were not treated equally and were not given the best cases to work on. The women lawyers that did do well had to work twice as hard and put in much more hours than their male counterparts. The legal profession is geared towards the white male. Women lawyers have a harder time measuring up to their male counterparts for a variety of reasons, one being that women lawyers usually have the responsibility of caring for their families as well as working on their careers. In the law firm environment lawyers are required to bill so many hours a month and many times women lawyers fall short of their billable hours due to not being able to put in the time needed to bill those excessive hours because of family obligations. Their male counterparts usually do not have those obstacles to overcome. I liked your hub very much and welcome to HubPages.


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