Groups » Women in the Legal Profession: A Disparity in Numbers or Victims of Gender Bias

Women in legal profession have come a long way since the first female lawyer was licensed to practice law in 1869. Since then, the female attorneys have been improving their presence in this domain. Today, they comprise around 32.9 percent of lawyers (as of 2014) and roughly around 50 percent of overall incoming law students. Despite that, female attorneys are underrepresented, especially when it comes to positions associated with power and status with the field of law.

Studies reveal that female attorneys account of just 15 percent of law firm partners and federal judges, 10 percent of general counsels and law school deans and just five percent of managing partners at large law firms. Besides, their billing rates are much lesser than their male counterparts, although they work more.

Explaining the Disparity in Numbers

When asked about this disparity in numbers at the partnership level, Susan Smith Blakely, author of the Best Friends at the Bar books for female lawyers and a retired law firm partner said it is largely due to the work-life struggle, which affects differently to women.

There is a reason behind Blakely’s explanation. Typically, a woman lawyer is named for partnership consideration only after 8-10 years into her practice. And by this time, her biological clock also start ticking away. Women who are especially interested in having family and interacting significantly with their children, often find it difficult to manage the stress and work-pressure of a demanding profession like law. As a result, many female attorney leave law firm practice before they reach the stage when they are more likely to be considered as a partner in search of some more family-friendly settings.

Among those staying at the law firms, some indeed make partner. But again female law firm partners usually find it more challenging to find an equilibrium between professional and personal lives, especially those who have family and children in the very first year of partnership. While some keep struggling with a troubled and challenging personal life, many leave the profession altogether. Although a few of them continue with their law practice, they often return to the non-partnership ranks. Some female attorneys also prefer to work part-time and flexible hour schedules after having children in order to maintain a work-life balance.

This explains that the disparity in the number of female attorneys through the partnership and/or leadership roles is not always the result of gender bias. That being said, we are not ruling out the chances of gender bias altogether. This is especially applicable for new female attorneys.

Upon entering the professional world, a female law student necessarily face a male-dominated profession. It is true that incidents of overt discrimination in the professional field is a rare incident as it is against the law, certain covert practices still impact women lawyers differently than their male counterparts. For example, a male attorney usually feel more comfortable and at-ease with other male lawyers even when they need to travel together. Women lawyers generally have a disadvantage in such case assignments. Although law firms are trying to deal with such issues, it is often challenging to pin down and solve them, considering the human nature issue.

What Law Firms are Doing?

As mentioned, law firms are addressing such issues. They are now recognizing and encouraging practices like flexible work schedules, on-site daycare, and part-time partnership etc. Some law organizations are also allowing attorneys to work on alternative schedules. And all these are now being taken into account for partnership consideration.

But this is the case with only a few law firms as such practices often impact their bottom lines. It is essential to understand that law firms are primarily businesses; these alternatives are not always considered as good business policy for law firms when it comes to driving profits.

While it is true that only a few firms are taking such alternative practices into account for partnership consideration, law organizations are becoming much more receptive than before as a whole. This is happening mostly due to client pressure especially from corporate counsel, a field where women are best represented, according to a Harvard Study. The study indicates that female professionals hold strong and powerful leadership positions in corporate legal departments.

Women lawyers too need to be more proactive to reduce, if not abolish this disparity in numbers.

Confidence in the Key

First thing first, female attorneys need to effectively promote their work throughout their careers. It is often noticed that women identify success as a group effort, unlike men who consider it as their own. This is also true for women in the legal profession. It often become a matter of “I vs. We,” with female attorneys preferring the latter.

Many believe this is because women (lawyers) often lack confidence. While there is enough room for debate on this, it is true that a large number of female attorneys need to learn how to communicate their successes more effectively which is as important as recognizing a team effort. They largely depend on the praise and positive feedback of other senior members and are not totally convinced of their true potential.

In comparison, a male lawyer is usually overconfident and his confidence often show up in his body language, posture and speech. Self-confidence is therefore the key that most female lawyers need to work on.

They must also address their personal needs before entering the legal profession. There are several practice settings beyond law firms to choose from, the likes of which include in-house counsel, public sector practice and practising in non-profit organizations. All these practice areas offer more flexibility and less travel and stress.

If they decide to enter a law firm, it is essential to select compatible practice areas. For example, merger and acquisition as well as civil and criminal litigation are very stressful and inflexible in nature. In contrast, there are some more flexible practice areas like tax and bankruptcy and other non-litigation settings such as estates and trusts. In addition, female attorneys often lack the ability to assess and embrace risk, which is essential in the later stage of their career. While it is rather difficult and more challenging for women, they need to learn this aspect to become accomplished attorneys.


Irrespective of the practice area a female lawyer settles for, she need to be confident about her ability. Women are instinctively great networkers and great communicators. They just need the right amount of confidence to apply them on their professional life as well, especially in developing new business for their law firms to gain both respect and power.

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