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Women and the Legal Profession: Four Common Obstacles Faced by Female Lawyers

We say we live in a modern society, but gender inequality is still evident in several professions, including law. According to data published by the American Bar Association's Market Research Department in April 2016, women comprised only 36 percent of legal professionals in the country. Though the number of women is growing in private law firms as well as the judiciary, they don't have equal access to senior positions. The working environment and office hours in most law firms are still more suitable to male lawyers compared to their female counterparts.

Women entering the legal profession have to face a multitude of obstacles to pursue a successful career. "Three issues continue to be the biggest obstacles to a woman's advancement in the legal profession. They are traditional sexual stereotypes, inflexible workplace structures, and inadequate access to mentoring," says Deborah Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, Stanford University (California). Women also have to face problems such as inequality in pay and sexual harassment in the workplace.

  1. Traditional Sexual Stereotype or Gender Discrimination
    Women are no strangers to gender discrimination. The problem in the legal profession, however, takes a slightly different turn. Though the number of female solicitors is almost equal to their male peers at the junior levels, they remain severely underrepresented at higher levels.

    A 2015 gender-bias survey conducted by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reveals that only 17.4 percent of women were equity partners in the surveyed U.S. law firms. On the other hand, 28.8 percent women worked as non-equity partners. The situation has changed at an extremely slow pace over the last five years. The percentage of women equity partners rose from 15.6 percent in 2011 to a paltry 17.4 percent in 2015. Hopefully, women will gain more representation at higher levels at a much quicker rate in next five years.

    Traditional sexual stereotyping poses several problems. Not only the male peers, but clients too, sometimes make assumptions about female lawyers based on her gender. They often assume that a female solicitor may be too soft to manage an aggressive negotiation or a complex litigation. In a few cases though, the stereotypic behavior of a male lawyer may be unintentional. The answer to this problem lies in cooperation between both genders. Both men and women should work together to create an unbiased work culture.
  2. Work-Life Balance
    The lack of work-life balance is one of the major obstacles that female lawyers face. Most lawyers have to work late hours and remain accessible almost 24/7. It can be challenging for a woman, particularly a single mother, to practice law in such arduous time frames.

    However, in today's technology-driven world, it is easier to attain a suitable work-life balance. Most female solicitors use the combination of flexible working hours and work-at-home to juggle their professional and personal commitments.

    Creating work-life balance is a learning process that requires patience. So, don't be disheartened by a few hiccups, just make sure to formulate a plan that benefits everyone and stick with it.
  3. Sexual Harassment
    Lawyers often advise their clients to curb different types of workplace harassment, particularly sexual harassment. It is ironic as lawyers are expected to lead by example. In fact, they are considered as the sentinels of the law. Experts argue that certain factors can make female solicitors more susceptible to sexual harassment. These may include long work hours, frequent travel, and partner autonomy among others.

    Sexual harassment includes any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. One of the common forms of sexual harassment experienced by female lawyers is the use and manipulation of gender issues as a trial tactic by male lawyers. Male counsels can also make comments on the personal appearance of a female lawyer during the courtroom proceedings, often to intimidate her.

    The good news is that the percentage of female legal professionals experiencing sexual harassment is on a gradual, but steady, decline. But, workplace harassment statistics show that more than one in three women in the legal industry still experience this sexual harassment. The complete eradication of this problem is a matter of strict implementation of workplace harassment laws.
  4. Gender-Wage Gap
    Though gender pay gap exists in almost all professions, female lawyers earn a significantly less pay compared to their male counterparts. The latest statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the gender-wage gap in the legal occupation (not controlled by education and experience) was as high as 40 percent in 2015. This means women earned 60 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

    Equity partners in big law firms make millions. While they do make millions, women still make a lot less compared to the male partners. Women at top positions are also subject to gender-based pay inequality just like associates, non-equity partners, and trainees. According to the latest survey, female equity partners’ total compensation lagged almost $95,000 behind male equity partners in 2015. The pay gap has, in fact, increased by $5,000 in last five years.

    One of the common reasons for this disparity is that men can land more clients compared to their female counterparts by tapping an old boys’ network at other law firms. Though this may be true in certain cases, most female partners have to face stark inequality in pay, despite pulling in more business than their male partners.

Women have made exceptional progress in the legal profession since they were allowed to learn and practice law. However, like in most other occupations, gender discrimination is a major concern among legal professionals. As a consequence of this prejudice, women have to face considerable obstacles such a sexual harassment, work-life balance, and wage-gap to be able to pursue a successful career as a lawyer. Though the legal profession has witnessed a few sweeping changes over time, there is still a lot more left to do. Hopefully, the above four points will shed some light on the impending challenges faced by female solicitors and ways of overcoming them.

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