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GENDER AND RACE IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION

White males have dominated the legal profession throughout its history. Not a single woman was admitted to the American bar before the 1870s, and very few blacks (Friedman, 2005). Reflecting the deep-rooted sexism of American society before the 1970s, women were simply not considered suitable for the practice of law. They were seen as delicate creatures and, just like children, lacked full legal rights. By allowing women to practice law, the traditional order of the family would be upset.

This general view lay at the heart of a notorious opinion of a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873. This opinion said in part that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. . . . The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator” (Stevens, 2001:82). Not until 1878 did federal courts open the door to women attorneys. Law schools began to admit women in 1869, although many schools continued to deny admission to women. In 1872, Charlotte E. Ray became the first woman to graduate from an American law school (Smith, 2000). As of 1880, there were 75 women lawyers and 1,010 by 1900 (Stevens, 2001). By 1984, of the 649,000 lawyers, more than 83,000 were women (Curran, 1986). Today, women comprise about half of all law school students and an increasing percentage of all attorneys.

The legal profession also explicitly discriminated against African Americans and other people of color before the 1960s (Abel, 1986). The ABA and many law schools simply excluded blacks altogether before a half-century ago. In 1965, blacks made up 11% of the population but less than 2% of lawyers and only 1.3% of law students, half of them in allblack law schools. More than a decade later in 1977, only 5% of the country’s law students were black (Friedman, 1998, 2002). By the 1990-1991 academic year, this figure had risen slightly, to 5.6%. Today (2013-2014 data), African Americans comprise about 9.3% of law school students, a figure still smaller than their approximate 13% portion of the U.S. population (American Bar Association, 2017).

Law firms before the 1960s were about as discriminatory as law schools. Many excluded Jews, Catholics, blacks, and women. Through the 1950s, most firms were solidly WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant). These discriminatory hiring practices had started to decline by the end of the 1960s, but women and people of color continue to be underrepresented at the nation’s largest law firms (Jackson, 2016).

Some lawyers contend that while law schools have aggressively recruited minority students and many law firms have done the same for minority graduates, firms have been more reluctant to promote minority associates to partnership. One reason lawyers fail to offer a partnership is that minority lawyers are less likely to have relationships with important clients or to land a significant amount of business for the firm (Glater, 2001). But some minority lawyers say that they are not given the same opportunities as white lawyers to work with important clients, often because they do not have mentors who ensure that they have access to the best work. Finally, minority lawyers also cite of what they perceive to be a lack of opportunity for advancement within firms, and as a result, they opt for career opportunities in business, consulting firms, government jobs, or corporate legal departments.

There is also continuing evidence of disparate treatment of male and female lawyers in court in demeanor and language (Oliver, 2015). Minority female attorneys claim that they lack support by white women and minority men attorneys, face both race and sex discrimination, and have difficulties establishing networks (Jackson, 2016). Sexual harassment continues to be a problem, with more than half of women attorneys saying they have been sexually harassed as attorneys. There is evidence to suggest that women’s integration into the legal profession remains marginal despite their growing proportions in the field; they are still underrepresented in law firm partnerships and move more slowly than men toward these positions.

 
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