“The study of law was unusual for women of my generation.  For most girls growing up in the 1940s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.” – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the last three decades women have entered the legal field at a similar rate as men.  However, despite women making up over 40 percent of the profession, women lawyers have not advanced at nearly the same rate as their male counterparts.  In fact, the gender gap gets larger with each step up the ladder.

In a recent study sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and the Commission of Women in the Profession, the first-of-its-kind study, authored by Stefanie Scharf, partner at Scharf Banks Marmor LLC, and Roberta D. Liebenberg, senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black, R.P.C., aimed to discover the gender disparities women lawyers are currently facing.  The study titled “First Chairs at Trial – More Women Need Seats at the Table” found that women are still disadvantaged by gender roles making them far less likely to appear as lead counsel and trial attorneys when they do appear in the courtroom.

The study used a random sampling of almost 600 civil and criminal cases filed in 2013 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and measured various characteristics such as the type of entity the attorney represented, whether the attorney appeared as lead counsel and or as trial attorney representing either plaintiff or defendant, and the gender of the attorney.

The study found a substantial gap based on the distribution of men and women in the legal profession and that the type of case, nature of the parties, and type of legal employer affected the gender disparities.

The study found that in civil cases, two-thirds of all attorneys appearing either as lead counsel or trial attorney were men.  In civil cases, only 24 percent of women entered their appearance as lead counsel and only 27 percent appeared as trial attorney.  The study also found similar numbers in criminal cases with 33 percent of women appearing as lead counsel and 21 percent of women appearing as trial attorney.  Similarly, only 22 percent of women representing plaintiffs appeared as lead counsel compared to 26 percent of women representing defendants.  Contrarily, the study found that women lawyers working for the government fared well in lead counsel roles in both civil and criminal cases. 

Despite these troubling numbers, the study goes above and beyond to recommend practical solutions in closing the gender disparities.  To fix the disparities, the study calls on law schools, judges, clients, as well the legal profession to become aware of the implicit biases that hinders the progress of women lawyers.

The authors recommend that law schools better prepare future women lawyers interested in litigation with training that makes them more competitive candidates. Recognizing that law school is the first step in fixing the problem, the authors recommend that judges and clients play a vital role by requesting that more women lawyers be a part of the team and sit at the lead table as much as possible.  Finally, the legal profession should take note that these gender disparities do exist and should do more to fix the problem.  For example, many law firms are lauded for being “women friendly” places to work, but the characteristics measured do not actually show whether women advance at the same rate as men.

Roberta Liebenberg believes that better metrics to gauge women friendly places to work should include “whether women sit on a firm’s management committee or whether the Chair Managing partner sit on the Diversity Committee or set goals for the percentage of women and lawyers of color in equity ranks, and how women equity partners fare in terms of compensation.” Stephanie Scharf also adds, “whether women advance at the same degree as men is much more likely to involve core aspects of a law firm’s business, such as who receives credit for client engagements, how succession planning is done, the kind of contributions to services for the firm are rewarded and the make-up of the governing and compensation committees and other business factors.”  Stephanie also adds, “the best firm for women are those firms where women actually do succeed on par with men.”

To learn more about the study, visit

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