Gender Bias: What Female Law Students Should Know

gender bias

Please welcome Megan Canty, Director of Academic Success and Bar Exam Preparation at Wayne State University Law School and tutor at the Law School Toolbox, to talk about some of the challenges facing women in the legal profession, and ways to overcome them.

It’s no secret that women have made incredible strides in the legal profession over the past several decades. The first female lawyer in California was ridiculed by her opposing counsel, who told the jury that she could not “be expected to reason” and that “God Almighty decreed her limitations.” Luckily for you, you’re highly unlikely to face such blatant discrimination in your professional life. (If you do, you could get a large settlement or verdict from the offending party and retire to the Caribbean!)

The most recent statistics from the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession shows that women make up 51.3% of JD students, and that 36% of all lawyers are women. However, women have not advanced to positions of power in the legal profession at nearly the same rate as men.

At the 200 largest law firms, women account for only 20.2% of partners, 17% are equity partners, and, most dismally, only 4% of managing partners. Women lawyers as a group earn a median of 89.7% of male lawyers’ weekly salaries.

In litigation, the numbers are similarly disappointing. Only 24% of lead counsel in civil trials are women, and the numbers are only slightly better in criminal trials – 32% female lead counsel. Essentially, the number of women entering the legal profession has increased significantly, but the number of women in leadership roles continues to be lacking, and the gender pay gap persists.

This may come as a surprise to today’s law students and young women lawyers. After all, we grew up in an era where it seemed like the path to career freedom and success was pretty well worn. Many of our mothers worked, and few if any of us grew up thinking it was strange or unique for a woman to be an attorney. We were surrounded by other women in law school. We are able to take advantage of working remotely. We watched Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg rise to the pinnacle of our profession and have families. So it stands to reason that we should be primed for satisfying professional and personal lives.

So what’s going on?

Research has repeatedly shown that gender biases continue to permeate the courtroom and the legal profession as a whole, making career advancement for women a struggle. A Defense Research Institute (“DRI”) survey found that 70.4% of the participants have experienced gender bias in the courtroom. While women have campaigned for years for “a seat at the table,” many women “already find themselves ‘sitting at the table’ …. But once they’ve taken their seats, they still aren’t recognized as legitimate speakers.’”

Women attorneys have reported experiencing gender bias from judges, jurors, and other attorneys, such as being mistaken for a secretary, being referred to as “honey,” “sweetheart,” or other similar terms, called “shrill,” having their suggestions or statements ignored, being bullied and treated with condescension, or, perhaps most upsetting, having clients express a preference for male lead trial counsel.

Many women also face the issue of how their personalities are perceived. In what has been dubbed the “likeability penalty” by Sheryl Sandberg, women who are aggressive, successful, or forceful are often deemed unlikeable or abrasive. On the flip side, soft-spoken, compassionate women are seen as weak and are unlikely to command respect. This has been observed in the DRI’s studies with how both jurors and judges view female attorneys.

Frustrating as this may be, it’s a reality for today’s women law students and lawyers. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it stand in the way of your goals. We’d all like to see circumstances change, but until that happens, how can you navigate yourself through a high pressure, naturally adversarial profession where it is difficult for women to succeed?

Women have become adept at identifying gender bias and the problems it creates, but many are not sure how to work against it. The following are three steps you can take to take control of your success in a gender biased world.

1. Find Mentors and Supporters

Many women attorneys feel that they struggle to find effective mentoring, but finding a mentor is essential. Some law schools have formal mentoring programs, so see if yours does, and see if they have any successful women you can be matched with as a mentor. If not, you need to find your own mentor.

Your professors, your supervisors in externships, summer associateships, or any other context can be great potential mentors. Consider joining your local Women’s Bar Association or other women’s legal groups. A mentor can be an invaluable source of information and strategy as you map out your career plans, so network for mentors just like you network for jobs.

Attend events and connect with the speakers. Reach out to a woman who writes an interesting study. Get involved with the ABA’s Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession, read what the group publishes, and connect with the members. Also, connect with the Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Alliance, an organization founded by a female attorney (and partner at a major law firm) that brings professional women together to mentor and support leadership opportunities for women at all stages of their careers.

2. Learn the Language of Success

Andrea Kramer, a prolific writer on gender bias in the legal profession, has written about how women are very uncomfortable touting our achievements and skills in interviews, self-evaluations, and client meetings. That puts us at a distinct disadvantage because it’s something men are usually very comfortable doing.

Women tend to be modest and discuss team efforts as opposed to taking well-deserved credit. So if you are preparing cover letters, going into an interview, attending an evaluation, or trying to land a client, learn the language of a confident, competent attorney:

  • “This has been a year of phenomenal growth for my practice because of __________.”
  • “The projects I’ve taken on have greatly increased my ability to do the following: ______”
  • “I took on a lead role in this trial/transaction by handling the following: _____.”
  • “I have worked with a large number of associates, partners, and staff to ______.”
  • “I have immersed myself in ______.”
  • “On this transaction/case, I have effectively handled ___ ___.”
  • “I took on a key role when I did ______.”
  • “I have successfully completed a _______.”
  • “I have been very active in ____.”
3. Take control of How You Are Perceived

One mistake I’ve seen many women attorneys and law students make it trying to create a persona they assume will be agreeable to other attorneys, judges, and jurors. Instead, you need to maintain self-awareness and observe how others react to you so you can see what each specific situation requires in order for you to accomplish your goals.

If you’re not getting the reaction you want from someone, try to figure out what caused that reaction. Are you being overly aggressive? Too soft spoken? Not communicating your point clearly?

Another mistake women often make is failing to take advantage of the non-verbal ways we can utilize to demonstrate that we are competent and confident. If you’re new to a job, take the initiative to introduce yourself to people and shake their hands. Get to meetings early and choose a seat where you can be an active member of the discussion, instead of filing in with everyone else and taking the risk of being relegated to a seat off to the side or in the back.

Conclusion

Gender bias exists, and it’s a mistake to assume the world is suddenly going to become fair or that work product is going to be all it takes for you to succeed. Take control of your career and your success by acknowledging that bias exists, educating yourself on how it affects you, seeking out guidance from mentors, and honing your verbal and non-verbal communication skills to put the message out that you are a competent and confident attorney.


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About Megan Canty

Megan is a tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox. Megan is the Director of Academic Success and Bar Exam Preparation at Wayne State University Law School and previously served as the Associate Director of the Dan K. Webb Center for Advocacy at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

She regularly presents at conferences on legal education, and her academic scholarship has been published in national and international law journals.

Megan is also a Registered Yoga Teacher and has taught yoga to law school faculty, staff, and students.

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