Here’s what we’re not excited about: Women have crossed the 50 percent mark in the nation’s law schools: 50.32 percent of all law students, to be exact, according to the American Bar Association
Yes, we’ve come close to this mark before—in 2015, women made up 49.4 percent of law students—but we never before got the cigar. Although in 1992 the ABA reported that female law student enrollment hit 50.4 percent, that figure is now regarded as unreliable. Kyle McEntee, founder of Law Transparency, says that data was wrong: “There’s no way it went up to 50.4 percent from 42.5 percent and back down to 43.1 percent in the subsequent year. … It’s nearly mathematically impossible.” The ABA seems to agree with McEntee’s assessment, as it also hails 2016 as the high mark for female enrollment.
So why aren’t women celebrating this official milestone? Well, I think it’s because we feel we’ve been here before. As far back as the 1980s, women have made up at least 40 percent of J.D. students, yet women have not come remotely close to that percentage in attaining equity partnership. Women’s equity partnership rates have been around 16 to 17 percent for more than a decade.
Truth is, women have made pitiful strides in the private sector. In contrast, they’ve achieved far more in academia, both as students and academics/administrators.
“Law schools have been more successful than other areas of the legal profession in hiring, retaining, and advancing talented women,” says Jenny Waters, the executive director of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL). She notes, for instance, that law schools “happily met” NAWL’s challenge in 2006 to increase the percentage of women in tenured positions to 30 percent by 2015. Moreover, NAWL is now challenging schools that one-third of deans position be held by women by 2020, Waters says, and “we have every expectation they will meet that goal as well.”
What’s shocking is that those expectations don’t seem shocking. But can you imagine challenging Am Law 200 law firms to have 30 percent female equity partners by 2020? You’d be accused of being unrealistic—or high.
I’d like to be celebratory about women crossing the 50 percent mark in law schools, but I doubt this is the harbinger of a new female power surge. More likely, it’s just the continuation of what we’ve seen for so long: An abundance of eager young women at the gate, but precious few who will go on to win the game.