US Law Schools: Women now Outnumber Men, but Disparity in Pay and Promotions Persist

Women In Law Edition 21'

International Law


Alexis Peacock

Across the globe, there are changes taking place as to what professions are available and accessible for women. With more countries electing women to political offices and historic fights for equal pay and rights, the opportunities available to women are ample compared to those in the past.

There is no question that the legal profession has historically been a male-dominated industry. But taking a look at the profile of current law school applicants and students, there are big changes happening. Women are now outnumbering men as law school applicants, and in 2016, women surpassed 50% of applicants and this trend continues. In 2018, women made up 52.39% of law students in the United States and are now consistently making up half of all newly licensed attorneys entering the job market.

Political and social movements continue to open doors for women in all aspects of the professional world, most importantly by making education more accessible and available. Although U.S. educational institutions cannot discriminate on the basis of gender in admitting students, obstacles have historically been in place that tend to deter women from pursuing an education. The emergence of part-time and night school programs is making the goal of obtaining a law degree more attainable for women, specifically for mothers and those with caregiver roles. With flexible school programs and more school resources available, women can now realistically do both by caring for their children and/or working during the day while studying and taking classes at night, all without neglecting to fulfill their family obligations. This change is making a law degree an achievable goal not just for women, but also for any other nontraditional student, such as someone who is beginning their legal career later in life.

More women entering the legal field leads to increased chances of high paying salaries, promotions and partnership tracks. However, the uptick in women entering the profession is not directly translating to pay equality and equal opportunities as the number of women in leadership roles remains stagnant. A recent survey of 300 top U.S. law firms found that the number of women in partnership roles is still under 20%, while women are now accounting for 45% of law firm associates. Additionally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, “the median earnings between young women and men lawyers (under age 35) are relatively close, at $77,000 and $85,000 annually (a 91 percent ratio). These differences increase with age, so that by mid-career (ages 45 to 54) median earnings for women are $121,000 compared with $156,000 of men (a ratio of 78 percent)." This means that women are starting in the same positions and pay, but are not advancing in leadership and salary at the same rate as their male counterparts.

The disparity between men and women, while likely not intentional, may be due to women carrying the majority of the burden in raising a family and maintaining a home. Traditionally women have been expected to be the homemaker and the reality of straying away from that role can be difficult for many professional women in the modern world. The split in career paths between men and women may start with an attorney taking maternity leave, as women require some time off during pregnancy and nursing. Women then tend to need more time away from the office to raise and care for their children. While the balancing act of parenting and a successful legal career creates stress for any attorney, the effects are exasperated for women as they try to maintain their traditional role and succeed in the workplace. This added stress causes many women to decide to not pursue a partner role or opt for less intensive or even part-time legal jobs in order to spend more time with their children. Women are also faced with a gender bias, where equally qualified women may be seen as less favorable candidates for leadership roles because they are