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Women may account for nearly one-third of the lawyers in the United States and outnumber men now attending the nation’s law schools, but the latest American Bar Association study of women in the legal profession shows they significantly lag behind men in leadership positions, professional status and earnings. “If current trends in law school applications continue, women’s representation will equal men’s in the foreseeable future,” the ABA report, “Unfinished Agenda,” concludes. “But whether equal numbers will bring equal opportunities is less certain. Much depends on the profession’s willingness to address the gender biases and barriers that persist.” Those barriers include stereotyping of women’s behavior and characteristics, inadequate access to mentoring and other support networks, inflexible workplace structures that undervalue those who work reduced hours for family reasons, sexual harassment and bias in the justice system. The study, the third major survey of the nation’s women lawyers and jurists since the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession began in 1987, was released April 27 as a “Women’s Leadership Summit” got under way in Boston. The two-day event was co-sponsored by the ABA and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In spite of the increase in women attorneys in the last decade or so — of the 655,000 attorneys in the U.S., about 200,000 are women, according to the ABA study — there has not been a commensurate increase in women leaders within the legal field in that time. “[Women] account for only about 15 percent of federal judges and law firm partners, 10 percent of law school deans and general counsels, and 5 percent of managing partners of large firms. On average, female lawyers earn about $20,000 less than male lawyers, and significant disparities persist even between those with similar qualifications, experience and positions,” the study reports. “Unfinished Agenda” includes research and recommendations that have been made nationwide in recent years by legal scholars, state and local bar associations, women’s groups and the ABA’s own publications. The ABA survey showed that too often lip service is paid to work options that are available, but not used frequently because of the work demands made on attorneys. “The most obvious failures in workplace structures are excessive hours and resistance to reduced or flexible schedules,” the ABA reported. “A wide gap persists between formal policies and accepted practices. Although over 90 percent of surveyed law firms allow part-time schedules, only about 3 to 4 percent of lawyers actually use them.” The ABA report found that competing work and family pressures lead to high attrition –a level of turnover more likely among women attorneys — that “disrupts relationships and discourages mentoring” at law firms. Only about 20 percent of the surveyed lawyers in the national study reported being “very satisfied” with time allowed them for personal needs and the opportunity to pursue pro bono work. About two-thirds of the attorneys who responded said they experienced work-family conflict “and most believe it is the greatest barrier to women’s advancement,” stated the report. The report notes the extra difficulty faced by women of color whose “achievements more often are attributed to luck or special treatment … [and] whose positions are frequently attributed to affirmative action rather than professional qualifications.” The ABA report outlines “An Agenda For Change,” which calls for legal organizations to collect data on women’s experiences, from promotion opportunities to “satisfaction levels;” to review their current policies and monitor progress in meeting diversity-related goals; to review leadership selection criteria, mentoring and professional development plans as well as work-family initiatives that provide more flexibility in the workplace; and to have bar ethical authorities treat sexual harassment “as a form of professional misconduct.” “This is not a modest agenda,” the ABA report acknowledges. “But it is critical to maintaining a legal system that is committed to equal justice in practice as well as principle.”
Eliminating Bias from the Workplace. Archived Program.

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