Fewer Women Are Seeking Law DegreesLeigh Jones
The National Law Journal
October 02, 2007
As Crystal Dadd's graduation date from the University of Florida was drawing closer, she began weighing the options that a bachelor's degree in finance offered.
Law school didn't make the cut.
Now an analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York, Dadd, 22, went so far as to take a prep course for the Law School Admission Test before she decided that pursuing a juris doctor degree was not the right move for her.
"It was something I was always interested in, but women are getting more opportunities outside of law school," she said.
Like Dadd, more women are forgoing a law degree. Since 2002, the percentage of women in law schools has declined each year, according to the American Bar Association. Five years ago, women made up 49 percent of law school enrollment. This year, 46.9 percent of law school students are women. And while the number of applicants overall has dropped in the past two years, the percentage decline in the number of women has been greater.
Although observers say a variety of factors contributed to the dip, the prevailing message is that fewer women want a lawyer's life.
The decrease comes at a time when the earning power of women in their 20s is outpacing men of the same age, at least in several major U.S. metropolitan areas. According to research from Department of Sociology at Queens College in New York, women in their 20s in Dallas, for example, earn 20 percent more than men of the same age. In New York, they earn 17 percent more.
In Dadd's case, the $10,000 moving bonus from Morgan Stanley and the chance to work and live in Manhattan's financial district outshone the prospect of spending three more years buried in books while racking up loan debt.
"I wanted instant gratification," she said, adding that she'll also receive a year-end bonus at Morgan Stanley.
In keeping with the enrollment figures, both men and women are applying to law schools in smaller numbers, according to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). But it is women who are deciding in larger numbers not to apply.
Law school and law firm leaders attribute the decline among both sexes to a strong economy from 2004 until recently, which has prompted people who would otherwise have gone to law school to start working right after college.
For the fall of 2006, applicants among both men and women plunged by 7.4 percent, the biggest drop since 1995. The percentage of women in 2006 fell by 7.7 percent, while the number of men applicants decreased by 6.7 percent. In the fall of 2005, the number of women applicants declined by 5.4 percent, and the number of men applicants fell by 4.1 percent.
The fall of 2004 marked a major deceleration in law school application growth. That year, the overall increase was 1.1 percent, with women making up 1.1 percent of that growth and men having 2.1 percent of the increase in year-over-year comparisons.
At the same time, law schools are admitting fewer women applicants than men applicants, partly because of the decrease in those applying. The number of women applicants accepted fell last year by 1.7 percent, but the number of men admitted rose by 1.1 percent. In 2005, women admissions decreased by 0.8 percent, while men admissions climbed by 1.6 percent.
Loyola University Chicago School of Law Dean David Yellen, who cautions about reading too much into the numbers, said that the reason fewer women are applying for, and enrolled in, law school may be due to their perceptions of broader options and to a strong economy.
He also said that several schools receiving initial ABA approval since 2001 have many more male than female students, which may account partly for the enrollment differences. The percentages of male students at Appalachian School of Law, Ave Maria School of Law and Charleston School of Law each exceed 65 percent, according to the "ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools."
Whatever the reason, the decrease in women students is a reversal of the long-running trend.
From 1963 to 1990, the enrollment of women in law schools rose each consecutive year, according to the ABA. In 1963, just 3.7 percent of law school students were women, compared with 42.5 percent in 1990. In 1992, for the only time, women outnumbered men at 50.4 percent. And from 1994 to 2001, female enrollment again began to climb steadily.
One reason for the reversal now may be the media attention that law firms have received about the scant number of women partners and the problems firms have in retaining women, said Elizabeth Pederson, a graduate of Stanford Law School last May and president of Ms. JD, an online community for women attorneys.
Many legal trade and general print publications recently have reported that few women become partners in the nation's law firms. In 2006, just 17.9 percent of partners in law firms were women, according to NALP, a nonprofit organization that tracks legal careers. Meanwhile, 44.3 percent of associates were women.
"You have a lot of career paths open, and one that gets bad press might give a lot of women pause," Pederson said.
To be sure, many law firms recently have adopted family-friendly policies to encourage women to stay. Last month, a group of 23 big law firms joined as founding members of the Project for Attorney Retention, an initiative of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
Those firms and many others say that they are committed to providing options such as flex-time schedules, on-site day care, paid maternity and paternity leave and breast-feeding rooms.
NO WAY AROUND HOURS
But all those family-friendly adjustments do not eliminate the fact that practicing law, at least in a law firm, is a business in which clients expect highly paid lawyers to make themselves available promptly when needed. Such a system, said Pederson, generally does not lend itself to schedule flexibility.
"A firm doesn't want to say to a client, 'We can't do that,' when the firm down the road says, 'Call us anytime,' " she said.
Cathy Fleming, a partner at Nixon Peabody and past president of the National Association for Women Lawyers, points to a combination of factors contributing to the decrease. A perception among young women that they have a wider array of career opportunities is one reason, but a change in work ethic is also at play, she said. And law firms, with their reputation for punishing work hours, may have a tougher sell to college graduates.
"They've grown up with parents that work these crazy hours. They don't want to do it," she said.