Ms. Esquire: How the Legal Field Is Changing for Women
Law has traditionally been a men’s profession. It wasn’t until 1868 that the first female lawyer in the United States – Arabella “Belle” Mansfield – was admitted to a state bar association. Fifty years ago, female lawyers were unheard of. Even thirty years ago, the percentage of women in law was woefully small.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that females began joining the ranks of the legal profession en masse. In 2000, an estimated 28.9 percent of all lawyers in the U.S. were women. At the beginning of 2017, that percentage had grown to 36 percent.
Now, we live in a world in which the legal field is changing to become friendlier and more accessible to women who aspire to practice the law in a wide variety of areas. There are women judges – even three female U.S. Supreme Court justices – as well as female litigators, general counsels, law school professors, and law school deans.
In this state alone, we’ve had multiple female chief justices of the Supreme Court of Alabama, including our current Chief Justice Lyn Stuart. In the 2016 elections, furthermore, nine female judges – African American females, even – were elected as circuit and district judges in Jefferson County.
What’s more is that more and more women lawyers are joining the elite ranks of partnership, even in some of the nation’s biggest firms. As of 2017, over one-fifth of all partners in the nation were female. An estimated 18 percent of the managing partners in the nation’s 200 largest law firms were women. And nearly half of all associates and summer associates were female.
Within my firm – Hare, Wynn Newell & Newton – we have three female associates and three female staff attorneys. Our women lawyers have been recognized nationally for excellence and are a part of the thriving legal community in our state.
The future looks bright, as well: women received 47.3 percent of all law school degrees awarded. (Plus, 54 percent of leadership positions in collegiate law reviews are women, and 49 percent of all editors-in-chief are women.)
The legal field is changing for the better for women. Our daughters are growing up knowing that if they have the aspiration and ability, they, too, can become lawyers – and even partners and deans and judges. They see that women are capable of driving substantial changes to policy at all levels and are influencing the practice of law all across the country. They also can see how female lawyers can use their experience as a catalyst for involving themselves in the community at large, whether it is as an activist, nonprofit advocate, or politician.
I personally want my daughter to see me as a role model and learn that life is about helping others with the talents and gifts we have. When it comes to law, women have a unique ability dig deep into others’ lives and tell their stories. I want my daughter and other daughters to believe they have that ability, too – the ability to have compassion for people and their situations.
Some of the progress was made the old-fashioned way, through decades of perseverance, determination, and hard work from trailblazers. Some of the progress being made today and into the future is accomplished by groups like Ms. JD, a student-founded nonprofit working to support women in the legal profession.
Every time a mother, guidance counselor, teacher, or mentor tells a young woman that yes, the law could be for them, though, more progress is made – one woman at a time.
It’s an exciting time to be a female practicing law in today’s America. There are still challenges that need to be overcome – for example, there is only one female lawyer in the Alabama legislature – but female lawyers have shown that women are just as capable in practicing law as men, and can provide rich insight and experience to the ever-changing nature of jurisprudence. There are real benefits to having women at the table, not just in the conference room but in the courtroom, and there are many situations in which having a woman represent a client is a real advantage for the client.
Support our nation’s young women as they choose a career, and if their dreams happen to settle on the practice of law, encourage and cultivate them. They can – and with hard work, will – become a reality.