What comes to mind when you think of the “ideal attorney?” Do your thoughts land on an image of someone such as Atticus Finch, a strong, well-respected man in the community who likes to fight for the underdog? Its likely you are not currently thinking about Elle Woods, the “ditzy” blonde female who went to Harvard Law just to gain the attention of her ex-boyfriend.
It seems that pop culture has continued to portray men as having the better makings for an attorney, but do employers feel that way as well? It seems possible, because now, exactly 50 years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, women are still not only receiving less pay for their work as attorneys, but also make up a steep minority of the profession.
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the legal profession is currently made up of 33.3% women and 66.7% men. That statistic doesn’t look as if it will be changing anytime soon, as there are still a substantially higher number of men currently enrolled in law school than there are women. The ABA reports that there are 78,000 men enrolled, with 10,000 less females enrolled in a J.D. program. Wake Forest School of Law, however, reports that the Class of 2016 is made up of 51% women.
Enough about statistics. The real question is why this discrepancy is still occurring. Some current lawsuits suggest that the problem may be due to women’s family obligations. Earlier this year, Pamela Levinson, a former lawyer at the prestigious WilmerHale, was terminated from her job while on leave to care for her newly adopted daughter. Another recent lawsuit seems to suggest that partners still see women through sexualized stereotype lenses. In a class action suit brought by many former attorneys at Greenberg Traurig, women were allegedly excluded from client pitches and were encouraged to have intimate relationships with firm leaders in order to be promoted. While these are extreme examples, it is shocking that behavior such as this is still occurring in 2013.
So what can women do to fix this problem? Amy Schulman, executive vice president and general counsel of Pfizer Nutrition, suggests that women have to make the transition from “dutiful daughter” to a partner mindset. To do this, she says that women to get over the notion of wondering, “Do I Belong?” because I am a woman, and move to speaking with confidence, which sometimes doesn’t come naturally. She further states that a woman needs, “a certain amount of self-effacement, a commitment to the team and the organization.”
Hopefully this will no longer be an issue within the next decade. The ABA is currently attempting to remedy this problem by not only urging President Obama to consider more women for federal appointments, but also the ABA has implemented a Gender Equality Task Force. This task force hopes to create tool kits that will help law firms remove the disparity in pay grades between male and female attorneys. Additionally, law schools like Wake Forest are doing their part to make women an equal part of the legal community.
Hopefully, with these changes, Elle Woods will no longer be the most prominent female attorney in everyone’s mind.
* Caitlin S. Hale is a second year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a minor in Communication Studies, and received a certificate of technical and professional writing and communication from East Carolina University. Upon graduation, she intends to practice labor and employment law.