Even though women make up close to half of all law school graduates, Shirley Leung of the Boston Globe notes that a gaping gender gap exists in the legal profession. She speculates that it could be the long hours required by large firms, the male-dominated culture of those firms, or outright discrimination, but “women drop out.” Leung reports that
- Women comprise only 36 percent of the profession, according to the American Bar Association
- Only 18 percent of women are equity partners at the largest firms
- Women earn only 80 percent of the typical equity partner, according to a study done by the National Association of Women Lawyers
- In high profile cases, women may be on the litigation teams, but they are relegated to roles behind the scenes and do not have speaking parts
Why does this last point matter? Leung cites Kim Dougherty, past president of the Women’s Bar Association, as noting, “getting more women to play big roles in courtrooms increases their chances for advancement, better pay, and opportunities to seek judgeships, which require lead trial experience.” Both Dougherty and Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, suggest that judges can impact change from the bench by asking for more gender diversity among attorneys in courtroom proceedings. By setting such policy for their courtrooms, they can open opportunities for women to litigate in lead roles.
The judge presiding over the Sumner Redstone case in Boston is a recent example of a judge who “walks his talk.” When only male attorneys spoke for both sides in the opening arguments of the trial, Judge George Phelan commented on the lack of female attorneys. His comment may result in participation by more women lawyers as this case moves forward, but Gertner notes that this will only matter if the women have real speaking roles rather than just cameo appearances.
We need more judges like Phelan and Gertner who create fairness and opportunity for all lawyers in their courtrooms.
The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Activedia