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Women Spurn Law Schools

Vivia Chen

May 16, 2011

IStock_000015162248XSmallHave we been complacent about the supply line of women in the legal profession? Didn't we all assume that women make up around 50 percent of the students in the nation's law schools--particularly in the top schools?

That's just not true. According to statistics compiled by Poets & Qants, a terrific site devoted to MBAs, female enrollment at the top law schools lags behind men (hat tip: ABA Blog). Among the top ten law schools, the one with the lowest female enrollment is NYU (42.6 percent), while the highest is UC-Berkeley (52.9 percent), the only school to break the 50 percent mark. Here's the list:

1) Yale, 49.3 percent

2) Harvard, 48 percent

3) Stanford, 45 percent

4) Columbia, 48.5 percent 

5) University of Chicago, 44.3 percent

6) New York University, 42.6 percent

7) University of Michigan, 44.6 percent

7) University of Pennsylvania, 47.6 percent

9) University of California at Berkeley, 52.9 percent

9) University of Virginia, 44.8 percent

Granted, the fact that women represent 40-plus percent of students at these schools isn't horrendous--certainly when you compare it to the dismal enrollment of women at business schools, where hitting the one-third mark seems like a big achievement.

But what's surprising is that women's enrollment at law schools overall has been on a steady decline since 2002, when women constituted about 49.05 percent of law students. The ABA's newest statistics show that women made up about 47 percent of all first-year law students for 2009 to 2010, and 45.9 percent of all law school graduates. The all-time high was in 1993, when women's enrollment bumped just above 50 percent. (Click here for Catalyst chart.)

So why are fewer women flocking to law, just when females are in the majority in graduate school? One reason for the decline, says Dorian Denburg, president of the National Association of Women Lawyers, is the steady stream of bad news about the difficulties facing women in law: "Twenty years ago, when you had a lot of women coming out of law school, the ceiling was not as apparent as it is now. You didn't have as many statistics or information," she says.

Jessie Kornberg, executive director of Ms. J.D., agrees that there's a "perception problem." She says it doesn't help that there's been been "no discernible progress for women in the legal profession in roughly a decade." She adds, "The number of women in visible leadership positions in law firms and legal departments remains essentially unchanged." Moreover, she says, "lawyers in general appear to be an increasingly miserable bunch."

Brande Stellings, a vice president at Catalyst, warns law firms not to count women out: "Women are still close to a majority of law school students--so it’s still critical for law firms to see that women are here to stay in meaningful numbers--as associates, partners, judges, and clients."

No one is predicting that the supply of women pursuing J.D.s will dwindle to that of women in MBA programs. Denburg says much of the negative press is skewed toward big firms. "The bad news about Big Law has dominated the conversation," she says. Young women, she adds, should keep in mind that "Big Law is just a small part of the profession. . . . There are lawyers who work for Legal Aid, corporations, the government."

Readers, why do you think fewer women are pursuing law? Is this just a blip, or a trend that's here to stay?

Related post: Don't Let Your Wall Street Sisters Quit.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

Follow The Careerist on Twitter: twitter.com/lawcareerist


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If women are not outnumbering men in the ranks of graduate school, what programs are they pursuing if they're pursuing law in fewer numbers?

To the "3Ds"--why are you surprised that Vivia writes about women lawyers when this is a blog about work-life balance in the law? Not really applying your much-vaunted "logic and reason" there, are you?

Hmm, where are you getting those numbers? I'm at Michigan, and I've been handed the statistic of 49%ish women (don't remember off the top of my head). It certainly doesn't seem like there's a 4/5 ration for men to women in class.

They're wiser at a younger age, and realize that the profession is both overstocked and saddled with cynical and anti-people courts.

Doug and Dovid, keep up the good work. Notice how there is no response to the logic. When there are more young female lawyers, they complain that female lawyers make less than guys, when of course the issue is that less experienced lawyers make less than more experienced lawyers. When there are fewer female lawyers graduating, they complain, too. My question is, if they are so impervious to logic and reason, how can they expect to excel as lawyers?

Ok, I have a more constructive one now. I've seen several items lately about the woeful career prospects for new law graduates. I was never tempted to be a lawyer (too much school) but if I was, that would deter me.
I never assume I will get the great job, etc., simply by getting the degree or following the rules. That kind of thing didn't happen for me when I was young and I know not to count on it. Maybe some men have more confidence in this than I do.

Katherine, please don't be discouraged. Dirk and Dovid are showing what they are - stupid, prejudiced whiners. Use this information.
I find it interesting that they post to almost every column - they have nothing better to do than whine about something they don't happen to agree with. :-)
If Vivia did happen to write about the male point of view they would complain being misrepresented by a woman. No matter what she does, they complain. That's what they do.

Please forgive my error, "what" the woes are.

I'm curious to know what the "woes that the other sex experiences" are.

I get so disillusioned when I read comments like those of David, Dirk and Doug (the 3 "D's": there's a joke there somewhere). Honestly, to use the word "harpy" in 2011 is truly astonishing. For these 3 men to adopt such a mewling attitude is beyond the pale. Keep up the great work, Vivia. I enjoy your articles immensely.

Perhaps women realize that 50+ hour work weeks in large firm don't mesh with family and children. Men are more willing to sacrifice family goals for the sake of ambition. Women are making a choice about their priorities, and so are men. Isn't choice what it's all about?

This is good news for women, at least for those who worship at the alter of relative pay statistics. Follow me.

With fewer women entering law school, the population of female practicing attorneys will become relatively older. As that happens, it is likely the compensation disparity between female and male lawyers as a whole will narrow, and so women will have less to complain about.

Oh, never mind. For so many women like Vivia, having less to complain about is the worst fate of all.

Ahhh... another article about the woes of not having male genitalia in the legal profession.

Not that I am disclaiming any presence of gender discrimination in this industry (far from it); but, Vivia... please, please, please get more creative.

Every week, the majority of your articles are focused, like a laser-guided-sniper-rifle, exclusively on the woes of female lawyers.

In fact, aside from the Beached Male article, or the Men and Totes article, I cannot recall a single article that balanced the deck.

So, I humbly suggest/request/implore you to: 1) balance the subject-matter of your articles (candidly, it's ironic that you repeatedly write on the discrimination that women experience in the legal profession; and, you simultaneously ignore any of the woes that the other sex experiences [and let's not even start on the problems experienced by hermaphrodites]--seems somewhat... oh, that's right, discriminatory); or, 2) change the name of your blog to something that accurately reflects your biased slant on the articles you write: the Female Careerist, or the Feminist Careerist, or, and this is just my suggestion given the thrust of your texts, the Disenfranchised Male Hating Careerist.

Or, you could just call it the Harpy.

Finally, those statistics you have at the top of your article are not something the be upset about. Were they in the third-percentile range... maybe; but, think about this: once those numbers go above 50%, then, aren't men the minority in law schools; and, would that correct the situation, or would it simply change the horse's color?

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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