A new study indicates that the gender inequality that is well-documented in the legal profession actually starts when women are applying to law school.
Data compiled and analyzed by Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, and Deborah Jones Merritt, professor at Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, shows women are at a disadvantage even before they begin classes.
The study, “The Leaky Pipeline for Women Entering the Legal Profession,” highlights that females are applying to law school at a much lower rate than men, are not being admitted in the same numbers as their male counterparts, and are likelier to attend schools that have worse job placement rates.
Moreover, the inequality has sprouted within the past several years. In 2006, the number of male and female students was pretty much evenly distributed in law schools but by 2011, the split between the genders had become statistically significant and could not be attributed to random behavior.
This latest analysis adds to the concern about women’s struggles to gain their footing as attorneys. A periodic review by the ABA Commission on Women shows there are significantly fewer women practicing law — just 36 percent in the profession are women — and even less women in key leadership positions like equity partners in law firms, general counsel for Fortune 500 companies, judges and law school deans.
According to 2016 data from the Indiana Roll of Attorneys, 35 percent of the attorneys in the state are women and 65 percent are men. Gender is self-reported, but 97 percent of lawyers do indicate their gender.
McEntee and Merritt speculated the leaks appearing in the law school pipeline were rooted in the race for rankings and implicit bias. Admissions deans and faculty may not realize their practices are stifling the flow of women into their classrooms, but Merritt is hopeful law schools will review the study and consider ways to give equal opportunities to females.
At Indiana University Maurer School of Law, third-year student Stephanie Halsted seems more disappointed than surprised by the pipeline study.
She has experienced sexism and gender discrimination, including being hit on by convenience store attendants and dismissed by some male classmates, and she expects more of the same when she graduates. In fact, she believes her gender will ultimately prevent her from climbing as high in her profession as her abilities would allow.
Halsted, who said she was raised by a feminist mother, completed an undergraduate degree at IU in gender studies then entered law school with a class that was nearly 55 percent men. In her criminal law class, she has listened as male students argued about rape. In a negotiations class, she learned that society has a different set of expectations for women who request a salary bump.
“I’m angry about it. I’ve become emotional about it,” Halsted said. She noted she “has to accept reality and try her best to change it” while conceding that change “might not happen in my lifetime.”
The US News problem
For the pipeline study, McEntee crunched data collected by the American Bar Association and the Law School Admission Council. He said he was shocked by what he found.
The study showed that while women obtain 57.1 percent of all undergraduate degrees, they account for just 50.8 percent of law degrees. McEntee and Merritt said these statistics indicate that law schools might not be doing enough to attract women, especially since women are obtaining more master’s and doctoral degrees than men.
Women who did apply to law school were accepted at a lower rate than men. Overall for the class that enrolled in 2015, the rate of admission was 79.5 percent for men and 75.8 percent for women. Compounding the enrollment picture was the finding that although women comprised 49.4 percent of all JD students at ABA-accredited law schools in 2015, they were tending to cluster at lower-ranked institutions.
Law schools that placed at least 85 percent of their graduates in full-time long-term jobs that required a law degree averaged a 46.6 percent female enrollment ,while schools that placed less than 40 percent of their graduates in such jobs averaged a female enrollment of 55.9 percent.
Merritt remembered as a law professor at University of Illinois in the late 1980s and 1990s, she had female students who had turned down offers to attend more prestigious law schools for more personal reasons like wanting to stay near family. By the time she moved to Ohio State, law schools had largely achieved parity with women moving up in status by being named editors-in-chief of law journals and winning moot court competitions.
She speculated the shift in gender inequality can be linked to law school rankings.
U.S. News & World Report gives more weight to LSAT scores than other factors in its annual Best Law Schools list. According to the Law School Admission Council’s LSAT technical report for 2007-2008 through 2013-2014 testing years, men consistently scored slightly higher than women. For the 2013-2014 testing year, a higher percentage of men had scores greater than 150 while a higher percentage of women had scores below 149.
Consequently, implicit bias may creep into law school admissions as officials choose the applicants with higher LSAT scores and end up with classes that have a higher percentage of male students.
However, Valparaiso University Law School Dean Andrea Lyon questioned the validity of the pipeline study, saying the report’s “conclusions are much bigger than the data supports.” The enrollment numbers vary greatly among all the law schools, so she does not think the “reality is as stark as (the study’s authors) portray it.”
The northwest Indiana law school fits the study’s profile of lower-ranked schools. Since 2013, Valparaiso has enrolled nearly an equal number of men and women but was recently censured by the ABA for admitting students who did not appear capable of getting a JD and passing the bar exam.
Lyon has pushed back. She said the school has been taking steps to comply with the ABA standards and she bristled at the suggestion that Valparaiso achieved gender equality by taking lesser-qualified students.
Valparaiso looks at applicants holistically, she said. The faculty reviews the student’s college GPA, the quality of the undergraduate program, life experiences, writing ability and recommendations. They want to see applicants who have a “fire in their belly” because law school is hard work and the profession is demanding, Lyon said.
Eyeing the photos that hang in the halls of the classes that have come through Valparaiso in decades past, third-year student Erika Butler can see proof of the growing number of female students. In law school, she does not feel she has been the victim of gender bias but she noted some of her experiences have made her “slightly nervous” about what comes after graduation.
Working in a county public defender office, she was initially trained in all facets of the operation including some of the more secretarial tasks. As male students rotated into the office, she began to notice she was always asked to do the filing and paperwork while men were given research assignments.
Butler believes the treatment was unintentional and came just out of habit because she had a longer history of working for the public defenders and she already knew the processes. Still, she also knew she could do the research and find the information faster, so she spoke up.
She is now getting more substantial work but as she looks around the office, she sees the few women attorneys are primarily handling the overflow cases.
“I think for where we are in the 21st century with technology and culture, we should be so much farther” in achieving equality, she said.•