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Deborah Rhode on Women in Law

Editor's note: The thirtieth anniversary edition of Women in Law by Dr. Cynthia Fuchs Epstein is now available in paperback from Quid Pro Books. The book features a new foreward by Deborah Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, Stanford University. We are excited to share the foreward with you today on Ms. JD.  For an exceprt from the book, click here.

When Cynthia Fuchs Epstein published her pathbreaking account of Women in Law, their status in the profession was separate and anything but equal. They constituted less than 15 percent of lawyers and 5 percent of partners, earned about 40 percent less than their male colleagues, and were often relegated to low-prestige practice settings. With penetrating insight and painstaking detail, Epstein chronicled the biases that helped account for those inequalities.

Over the last three decades, much has changed but too much has remained the same. Now, about half of new lawyers in the United States are women and they are fairly evenly distributed across substantive areas. Yet significant gender disparities persist. Women constitute about a third of the lawyers in large firms, but only about 17 percent of equity partners. Attrition rates are almost twice as high among female associates as among comparable male associates. Women are also underrepresented in leadership positions such as chairs and members of management and compensation committees. Gender disparities are similarly apparent in compensation, even when controlling for productivity. Although female lawyers report about the same overall career satisfaction as their male colleagues, women also experience greater dissatisfaction with most specific dimensions of practice: salary, level of responsibility, recognition for work, content of work, chances for advancement, and control over their work lives. For women of color, all of these disparities are still more pronounced. Their attrition rates are the highest and their compensation and satisfaction rates are the lowest of any demographic group.

Part of the problem is the lack of consensus over whether there is a serious problem, or one that the profession has a responsibility to address. As was true when Epstein concluded her research, many decision makers still attribute gender differences to women’s different choices, capabilities, and commitment. A wealth of research, however, suggests that some of the biases that Epstein described are still very much present, although in subtler forms. Gender stereotypes, exclusion from networks of support, and inflexible workplace structures have created a playing field that is not yet equal. It is a shameful irony that the profession leading the nations’ struggle for diversity and gender equity in employment has so often failed to set an example in its own workplaces.

Yet in one crucial respect, the legal landscape has been transformed. When Epstein published Women in Law, part of what attracted its widespread acclaim was its originality; it was among the first in what has now become a rich literature on gender and diversity in the profession. Indeed, the fact that the book is being reissued testifies not only to its enduring scholarly value, but also to the attention that the issue now commands. In her preface to the 1993 edition of Women in Law, Epstein reviewed women’s partial progress and declared herself “optimistic, but cautiously so.” There is reason to feel the same today. The “woman problem” remains, but there is a cottage industry of committees, commission, scholars and organizations committed to addressing it. Her book helped inspire that movement, and our profession remains deeply in her debt.

The book is also available for Kindle and Kindle apps, Nook and Nook apps, and direct on Apple iBooks and iTunes (search by title or author name). 

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