Women in Law: Raising the Bar

Insight of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we’d like to pay tribute to the women in the legal field. Did you know that the first female lawyer in the United States, Arabella Mansfield, wasn’t allowed into the “boys club” until 1869? That was nearly 100 years after its founding! 

Since then, women have found their place in the legal profession, but that isn’t to say that many don’t still face challenges today. Although their progress differs dramatically across different nations and cultures, one thing’s for sure; a lot has changed since Arabella Mansfield made her way into the legal industry back in 1896. 

In 2016 women reached parity with men in law school admissions in the U.S. Studies show that women account for 52% of law students in American law schools. Yet, they’re still underrepresented in private practices, and only 24% reached a full partnership and had ownership stakes within the firm. 

For many, the exposure to grow has been challenged and limited not by ability but by the lack of opportunities. Luckily, trailblazers have paved the way for others in the legal profession. Take Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example. She was a lawyer and an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. As one of the most influential figures in law, she famously quotes, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Her words hold to this day. 

Celebrating the achievements of women in the world and recognizing the biases many still face today is essential. We will take a closer look at the current status of women in the legal industry in the following chapters. 

Challenges faced by female lawyers

Next, we’ll dive into actionable steps that aim at helping set women and law firms up for success. But, before we move two steps forward- it’s best to take one step back.  

The ABA (American Bar Association) reviewed a study called: Walking Out The Door. In it, you would be able to find the survey study of more than 12,000 senior lawyers at the nation’s biggest private law firms. So, what did the study find? In short, females are quitting the practice of law at a higher rate than males. Both have very different views on law firm policies. For example, when asked if the firm has successfully promoted women into leadership positions, 84% of males said yes while only less than half, 48%, of females agreed. You can see from the study’s results


As a whole, men thought their law firms treated women fairly, but women disagreed. 


The study provides more in-depth facts and figures – feel free to read the entire study here

How law firms can help women in the legal profession

We’ll provide more personal tips and tricks in the following section, but in this section, we’ll focus on what law firms, as entities, can do to help women in law. 

1. Include them in the planning for institutional and large clients. 

  • In law, networking matters a lot. Therefore, create a conscious effort to ensure the women at your firm are given the same chances to build relationships with clients. 

2. Combine forces in your firm’s pitch meetings. 

  • In any business, whoever is at the pitch meetings is critical to the economic power. Mix personalities, skill sets, and forces to get more ideas and voices heard. It can be a powerful thing working in your favor! 

3. Add more women to lead assignments. 

  • Are the women at your firm building their books too? Make an effort to level the opportunities for everyone at your firm. 

3. Rethink origination credit. 

  • Origination credit in law means that the lawyer who brings the client to the firm gets some credit even if they don’t spend time working for that client. However, this has plagued women for years because they are probably not originating partners – thus, missing on credit. 

5. Address issues through business surveys. 

  • We all have biases, but we can raise consciousness by checking our behavior and others. One way you can address concerns is through questionnaires. Be prepared to hear if things need to change and decide how you will handle it. 

Learn about the other trailblazers in law

Trailblazers don’t depend on a path. They create it. Here are some women in the legal profession who did just that: 

Sonia Sotomayor 

  • The first Hispanic and Latina Supreme Court Justice and the third woman to be an associate justice. 
  • She was an advocate for equal rights, justice, and gender equality. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

  • Associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1993 until she died in 2020. 
  • Dedicated to fighting for gender-based equality, including co-founding the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. She changed many laws, including that Juries must include women, and state-funded schools must admit women as well.

Myra Bradwell

  • Arabella “Belle” Babb Mansfield was the first woman admitted to a state bar in the United States in 1869. This opened the path for many. “Belle” walked so Myra Bradwell could run.
  • Myra Bradwell took the test and passed it two months after Belle. She became an advocate for women’s suffrage and got admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Explore more about women and leadership in our LAWsome Podcast. women and leadershipwomen and leadership

Become a trailblazer in law 

Women can also find ways to step on the plate. For many, this means taking risks and showing confidence, ambition, and strength. In other words, becoming a trailblazer too. 

Hear from Elizabeth “Betsy” Munnell herself. Munnell was a partner at the firm, formerly known as Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, and she also coaches women at Harvard Law School. The following are her 15 tips for women in the legal profession

  1. Build a network. Make a plan for this and figure out ways to develop your visibility and reputation.
  2. Make the most of the first 4 to 6 months as a new associate. Don’t take the meeting minutes; volunteer to do things that make you visible. 
  3. Take business courses and read the news daily. Read all about your client and learn to account. The latter is a skill that’s highly sought out! 
  4. Study negotiation. These skills aren’t only for “the few” – anyone can master this. 
  5. Find a mentor. Every successful person has a role model, a mentor, a figure, someone to look up to. Find someone that’ll check on your pulse here and there. 
  6. Be flexible, but set limits. Healthy boundaries at work can help safeguard your time and energy. 
  7. Be realistic about the demands of the job you want. What will it take to get to where you want to be? Prepare to put in the work. 
  8. Make your mark, especially with clients. For this, personal skills are essential. 
  9. Project confidence. As an attorney, you’re dealing with a lot of different people. You must come across as someone that’s in control. 
  10. Control your own direction
  11. Fight impostor syndrome by assessing with peers. This is where mentors are essential. Having a space to share experiences and problems allows room for growth. 
  12. Get a little help from other women. Finding allies is significant for women of color and minorities. 
  13. Don’t let anyone define your success. 
  14. If you believe you can do it…you probably can!
  15. Learn about broader business development. Understand what happens behind the curtains of law practice: the economic and operational sides. 

Takeaway 

The legal profession remains one of the most influential and most respected professions globally. It offers a stepping stone in democracy, business, and public life. Therefore, actively opening the bar and setting everyone up for success at your firm is vital.

Even though women are actively pursuing law, many remain underrepresented in positions of great power. While we’d like to celebrate the trendsetters, many still travel the rocky roads of female entrepreneurship and leadership in law. Fortunately, law firms can help ease this process.  

Today, more and more firms are seeking new ways to address imbalances at work, and you can do this too, and we can help you out! Whether you need to find better ways to manage your team’s communication workflow or want to learn how to maintain and improve your firm’s reputation online and offline – we’re here to help