March 26, 2001

Women Are Close to Being Majority of Law Students

By JONATHAN D. GLATER

 

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Women are expected to be the majority of students entering law school this fall, a development that is already leading to changes in the way law is practiced. And the movement is ultimately expected to help propel more women into leadership positions in politics and business.

Women, who made up about 10 percent of first-year law students in 1970, accounted for 49.4 percent of the 43,518 students who began law school last fall, according to data to be released soon by the American Bar Association, and that rate of growth is expected to continue. As of March 9, more women than men had applied for admission to law schools this fall.

That trend will affect the way schools operate perhaps making classes more teamlike and less adversarial, for instance and change somewhat the way law firms operate, lawyers and professors said. But even more significant, as the number of women with law degrees grows, they may be more likely to pursue careers in business and politics where legal training has often been a springboard to positions of power.

"Women may go to medical school, and that's good for a variety of reasons," said Carol Gilligan, a Harvard University psychologist who teaches at New York University Law School. "But that doesn't affect the structure of our society."

Several factors are driving the increase, which is seen at very selective schools like Yale as well as at public institutions like the law school at the City University of New York. While certainly seeking the security, income and prestige that have long drawn men to the law, women are also reacting to the decline of real and perceived barriers in the profession. It used to be that many judges would not hire women as law clerks, for example, and major law firms would not recruit them.

Some important obstacles still remain. Despite the increasing number of women graduating from law school and passing bar exams, the proportion of judges and partners at major law firms who are women has not kept pace. In New York, for example, where women represent more than 41 percent of the associates at law firms, fewer than 14 percent of the partners are women, according to the National Association of Law Placement.

Women have made serious inroads in other professional schools notably medicine, where they accounted for about 46 percent of the students who started last fall. They also dominate schools of education and veterinary medicine. And women have moved in larger numbers into business schools, where, according to the International Association for Management Education, they accounted for 38 percent of M.B.A.'s awarded in 1998, the most recent data available.

But far more people attend law schools, and given their low starting point, women have made significantly greater advances there women were just 4 percent of first-year law students 40 years ago.

There has been "a slow changing of assumptions about what women should consider doing," said Jean K. Webb, director of admissions at Yale Law School, where women accounted for a majority of the entering class for the first time last fall. Women were 46 percent of the entering class at Harvard Law School last fall, 44 percent at Stanford Law School, 51 percent at Columbia Law School and 50 percent at New York University School of Law.

Cynara Hermes, 22, who grew up in Uniondale, N.Y., and is now a first- year student at New York Law School, has wanted to be a lawyer since she was 7, she said, a result of watching "Matlock" on TV. Her interest was confirmed after a prosecutor in Mineola, N.Y., took her to see some criminal proceedings when she was in the 11th grade, as part of a program run by a local women's bar association, she said.

"I was fascinated," Ms. Hermes said. "When you're in a working- class neighborhood, you really don't get to see a lot of people" who are lawyers, she said. "It helped. I told her that I wanted to be a lawyer."

As with men, the attraction of law school for many young women is not so much the law itself as the opportunities a degree may open up. "It gives you so many options about different kinds of work you can do," said Mallory Ciar Curran, a second- year law student at N.Y.U.

A law degree can make it easier to get a job as a government policy analyst, enter politics or move up in business, as well as represent individual clients, she said.

While some schools still go out of their way to recruit women, many law schools no longer do. Yale did once, in 1996, but since then "the numbers have risen, and they seem to have risen without particular efforts on our part," Ms. Webb said.

More women in law school classes may lead professors to re-evaluate how they teach, to encourage more participation. Changing the adversarial environment fostered by some classes may better prepare all students for the real-world practice of law, according to Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School, because today most lawyers do not go to court and they work closely with other lawyers instead of practicing alone.

Law firms have already made some adjustments to the increasing numbers of women associates, who are quicker than men to raise concerns about balancing work and family, partners at several firms say. For example, when Judith Thoyer became the first woman to be a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a large New York firm, in 1974, the firm had no flex-time or part-time schedules. Now, she said, it has adopted both.

But some experts worry that the greater number of women in the law may lead to a loss of prestige for the profession, if it becomes a "pink- collar ghetto."

Deborah Rhode, who teaches at Stanford Law School, said women receptionists at law firms are in such a ghetto. "Receptionists at law firms used to be men," and were accorded more respect, she said.

Lawyers are divided about when women may come closer to parity in the judiciary, on law school faculties, or in law firm partnerships. Of 655 federal district court judges, only 136 are women, according to the Alliance for Justice, a Washington-based organization for nonprofit advocacy groups. Women are about the same share 20 percent of full law school professors, Professor Rhode said.

One result is that many women lawyers now serve as in-house counsels at companies. About 37 percent of the lawyers belonging to the American Corporate Counsel Association in 1998 were women. Others leave to work for the government or for public-interest groups, but statistics are hard to come by.

One reason more women are not judges, partners or professors is a "residual amount of prejudice," said Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Another is the decision by some women "not to go for broke," she said, because they bear a greater share of family obligations.



Women may also face additional pressures in some of their law school classes, Professor Guinier said. Even women who consider themselves very assertive often participate less than men in their law school courses, according to research she conducted.



"Many men and women experience law school as intimidating, perhaps because of its emphasis on individual performance in a large, intensely competitive classroom environment," Professor Guinier said. "This disproportionately may affect women who feel more pressure to perform well for many reasons, including the fact that when they speak, they feel as though they are speaking on behalf of women who are not present."



This does not mean that women are not zealous advocates in adversarial settings when they practice law, she added.



Professor Rhode said that the increasing number of women in law school "is too often taken as a sign that the `women problem' has been solved," she said, adding that "the central problem is the perception that there is no problem."

But she remains an optimist. "Women are simply too large a share of the talent pool for their concerns not to be addressed," she said. "The demographics are with us."