Breaking barriers in the legal profession: how far have women come? By Hon. Lisa Pupo Lenihan In the early 1960s, women constituted only three percent of the nation's lawyers. By 2006, we are about 30 percent of the bar in this country and close, if not equal to, 50 percent of law school students. 1869 marked the first year a woman was permitted to attend a law school. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981. Today every federal court of appeals other than the First and Eighth has at least two active women judges. I would definitely call this progress. On our bench in the Western District of Pennsylvania, three of the four full time magistrate judges are women, and three of the nine active district judges are women. Anne Jardim, co-author of The Managerial Woman (1977), once stated that "the ceiling isn't glass, it's a very dense layer of men." I personally believe that some of the men at that ceiling have been steadily moving aside to make room for us to ascend. And ascend we have, albeit not in the numbers that would be expected. A study recently published by the University of Pittsburgh shows that the gender pay gap in this region exceeds that of the nation. Utilizing 2007 census data, the study concluded that local women in commercial management earned just 58.3% of what men in those positions earned locally. In the non-profit arena, women fared slightly better, with women in management positions earning 64.3% of the pay for men. I had the pleasure of meeting former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor some months ago at a program promoting one of her favorite topics, judicial independence. She was delightful and very friendly. I took the opportunity to explore with her one of my concerns-the steady loss of women from the legal profession. I asked Justice O'Connor what she thought of the fact that women were leaving the profession and what could be done to slow the outward stream. She looked at me as though I had two heads. "You mean that women are leaving actual legal jobs?" she asked incredulously. "Yes." I replied. "Are you sure about that?" She pressed. I responded, "Yes, I am sure. There are statistics to prove it." "I cannot believe they actually have jobs and are leaving them! Do you know I could not get a job when I graduated from law school?" O'Connor said. The sum of this conversation was that the first female justice of the Supreme Court was truly shocked to learn that women who had real legal jobs were choosing voluntarily to leave them to either pursue other types of careers, or stay home and raise their families. She not only had no idea this was occurring, but could not grasp why any self-respecting female lawyer would do such a thing. I found this exchange to be extremely interesting, albeit puzzling. From Justice O'Connor's perspective, however, having struggled mightily to get a legal job, I suppose it was difficult for her to grasp why one would abandon such a prize. My point in relaying this story is to illustrate that women have indeed made progress. Unlike Justice O'Connor, who graduated from Stanford Law School in the early 1950s as a member of the Law Review, we are now able to get real legal jobs without much trouble. Not one law firm was willing to hire Sandra Day, although one did offer a legal secretary position. That is not a problem facing women who graduate from law schools now, nor was it a problem I faced upon graduation in 1983. The problems and barriers facing women today are much more subtle, yet they remain. As most of you are by now aware, the Gender Bias Subcommittee of the ACBA conducted a gender survey of this bar in 2005. The results for pay equity and position were significant. No female respondent who graduated from law school in the 1990's was earning above the $200,000-$249,999 level, yet over 10 percent of the male graduates for the same time period were being compensated at that level. Only five percent of the female respondents earned $250,000 or more, while almost 20 percent of the men were earning at this level. The number of women attaining partnership was also disheartening. The survey results indicated that women make up 45.8 percent of all associates, but only 17.5 percent of partners. When I graduated from law school in 1983 this disparity could be explained by the fact that there had not been equal numbers of women entering the legal profession. Those entering at that time, when female attendance in law schools had increased, had not yet had an opportunity to rise to the partnership level. Clearly by 2005 this problem should have resolved itself. The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) labels this problem in its recent survey report as the "50/15/15 conundrum." For over 15 years, 50 percent of law school graduates have been women, yet for a number of years only about 15 percent of law firm equity partners and chief legal officers have been women. The ACBA gender survey also revealed disappointing results regarding the female attorney's level of satisfaction with her chosen profession. The 2005 survey examined job satisfaction extensively and concluded that women were twice as likely as males to be dissatisfied with their employment situation. 70 percent of the males responding would definitely/probably choose the practice of law again for their career. In contrast, only 54.7 percent of the women would make that same choice. The Gender Equality Task Force, formed by the ACBA to explore the results of this survey, discovered that the results of the survey of the Pittsburgh legal market concur with the results of numerous similar surveys conducted nationwide, and confirm that women lawyers are leaving the profession at alarming rates. This has been referred to as the "leaky pipeline" syndrome. The question this raises is WHY? Some will blame it on the responsibilities of being a wife and mother. This certainly cannot be ignored, but I do not think it entirely explains the problem. I believe that all legal employers want to hire and retain the best lawyers. Women constitute a large number of the top law school graduates, are brilliant strategists, diligent workers, and excellent trial attorneys. From a firm or corporate perspective, having a diverse workforce, including women, is a requirement to succeed in today's environment. No one wants to invest in training a young lawyer, only to lose her when the demands of home life are met with a lack of flexibility or respect and she does not see the prospect of promotion or success in her chosen field. This is when women choose to leave the profession. Not when they have children, but when they believe that the sacrifices they make at home are not balanced by the recognition or appreciation they receive from a rewarding legal career where their opinions are respected, they receive fair compensation, they are included in client interactions and see a clear possibility of rising to partnership. The work of the Task Force reveals a number of reasons why women are leaving the practice. There are non-work controlled factors that pull women from the profession. These include demands of children and elderly parents. A number of women "off ramp" to attend to these needs and then encounter severe problems trying to "on ramp" back into the profession. There are also other factors that influence the exodus. These include dissatisfaction with career development, assignments and the possibility of promotion, lack of meaning and/or appreciation in their jobs, under-stimulation, and lack of opportunities. This loss of investment in the intellectual capital of the law firm results in a significant cost to firms and legal departments. Monetary costs associated with attrition range from $200,000 to $500,000 per lost associate. This issue is a serious one which the ACBA, along with numerous law firms and corporate and governmental legal departments in this region, is taking very seriously. The work of the Task Force has resulted in a final report and recommendation, which was distributed at the Bench-Bar Conference in June. I believe that the key to the report will be the recommendations for action going forward, the opportunities that will be offered to law firms to slow the attrition rate, and the training and counseling that will be made available to women lawyers to keep them engaged in this wonderful and rewarding profession. Women can break that glass ceiling. Let's make it worth the effort. n