Sometimes change seems upon us and at the same time like slow molasses. There are now three women justices of the Supreme Court, and the current president of the American Bar Association is a woman. But this progress masks the work that the legal profession still has to do to ensure that women can and do succeed commensurate with their skills and representation in the profession. We’ve come far, but still have far to go.
As a former law firm partner, a recent report that found that the percentage of women judges has remained virtually static over the past year reflects the challenges that still remain to achieving gender equity in the law. According to the study, done by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society, located at SUNY-Albany, women occupy 27.5% of state court judgeships and 24% of federal judgeships, both statistics that are virtually unchanged from the year before. While some states are doing remarkably well, others are falling behind. For example, Montana had the highest percentage of women judges nationwide (40.3%) while neighboring Idaho had the lowest at 11.3%.
According to Catalyst, women made up 47.2% of law students in the 2009-10 academic year, and according to 2011 data, 32% of lawyers are women. However, only 20% of law school deans are women (2009 data) and 19.5% of law firm partners are women (2011 data).
As center director Dina Refki notes, “If women are graduating from law schools at the same rate as men, and if there is a pool of qualified women who are ready to serve, there is no explanation for the unbalanced representation on the bench,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Women are in the law school and legal pipeline like never before, but still have to struggle to break barriers and become law firm partners and judges. As someone who practiced law, I know both the level of commitment required to be a leader in the legal profession and the number of women lawyers who are more than up for the task. As members of the legal community, we must question why these numbers still remain low and challenge ourselves to eradicate them.