02 Dec 2016

Aspiring women lawyers face 'leaky pipeline' into the profession, study finds

We know that women now occupy almost half the seats in law school classrooms across the United States, but don't get too excited about what that means for their careers.

Shao-Chun Wang

A new study written by Law School Transparency director Kyle McEntee and Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Professor Deborah Jones Merritt has warned that all is not as it seems when it comes to the growing presence of women across US law schools. While enrolment numbers are approaching parity, women law students are clustered at lower-ranked schools and are underrepresented at more prestigious institutions. Such a skew has severe ramifications for the types of positions women law graduates are able to secure upon entering the legal workforce, and their advancement through the profession later in their careers.  

Women the majority at poor-performing schools

According to the study, women now make up 49.4 per cent of all JD students at American Bar Association-accredited law schools. However, that figure drops to 46.6 per cent when considering only those top-tier law schools that send at least 85 per cent of their graduates into full-time, long-term (FTLT) placements requiring bar passage. For schools that achieve 70-84 per cent FTLT placements for grads, the percentage of women students drops even further to 45.7 per cent. Conversely, women make up 55.9 per cent of students at the country’s worst performing law schools that send fewer than 40 per cent of their graduates into FTLT placements in the profession.

Disadvantaged from day one

The authors write: ‘The negative correlation between the percentage of women and percentage of jobs requiring bar passage constitutes a major leak in the pipeline carrying women into the legal profession. Women occupy almost half of all law school seats, but they are significantly less likely than men to attend the schools that send a high percentage of graduates into the profession. Even if graduates of the latter schools ultimately enter the profession, they start at a disadvantage.’ Possible explanations for the clustering of female students at lower-performing schools include increased reliance on the LSAT score as an admissions tool, increased use of the LSAT score as a means of allocating scholarships, and the possibility that men tend to negotiate harder to receive scholarships and other funding when they receive ‘first offers’ from more prestigious schools, they suggest.

Other findings

The study identified several other ‘leaks’ in women’s pathways to legal careers. Firstly, women appear to be less likely than men to even apply to law school after graduating college. While around 3.4 per cent of male graduates apply to law school, only 2.6 of their female classmates do – an imbalance that, if corrected, would see women applicants to US laws schools rise 16 per cent overall. For those women that do apply, it also seems that they are less likely to be offered placed than their male peers. For the 2015 intake, US law schools admitted on average 79.5 per cent of their male applicants but only 75.8 per cent of the female ones. For the country’s most competitive schools, the gap in admissions rates for men and women was similar at 57.9 per cent and 54.2 per cent respectively.

Sources: LST Radio; New York Times