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The New York Times reported earlier this year that “[W]omen are expected to be the majority of law students this fall.” Arguably of more importance is whether they will succeed in the profession as much as their male classmates. The answer depends on whether the increasing number of women entering law school will end up on the fast track or the mommy track. There’s good news and bad news about women in the law. Good news first. American Bar Association figures show that, nationwide, women were 49.4 percent of law students last year. For the first time, more women applied to law school than men, according to U.S. News & World Report. Substantial variation exists from school to school, as my research on Washington, D.C., law schools shows: American University’s Washington College of Law, where I teach, has 64 percent women. It is followed by Howard University School of Law (59 percent), Georgetown University Law Center (53 percent), Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law (50 percent), and George Washington University Law School (46 percent). Nationwide, according to one study, the lowest is 33 percent. Having more women in law school classes makes a difference. I recall my contracts class at Harvard Law School in 1976, in an era when nearly 75 percent of law students were men. To illustrate the doctrine of unilateral contracts, my professor joked that before rescuing a drowning woman, one might reasonably ascertain whether or not she was pretty. Law students today face fewer lame jokes. Instead, they demand that their professors talk about issues that affect them: that their criminal law professors talk about rape and their family law professors talk about domestic violence. Today, women law students feel entitled to a curriculum that reflects their life experiences and political concerns. My own law school offers a case in point of the changes that have occurred. Nine full-time faculty members write or teach in areas related to gender, and four separate programs and clinics explore different areas related to women — from domestic violence to international law to work and family issues. Even so, when I was hired in 1982, not one course was taught on women and the law. Until my second pregnancy, in 1989, there was no formal policy of paid parental leave. Women’s growing presence has both reflected and fueled a shift in popular imagery of the legal profession — the archetypical television lawyer has morphed from “Perry Mason” to the title character in “Judging Amy.” In 1976, when I asked a dean at Harvard Law School why no women were on the tenure-track faculty, he kindly told me that they had looked very, very hard but could find none qualified. “Not one?” I asked. Apparently things have changed, given Harvard’s 15 tenured women faculty today. Over the past decade, according to ABA figures, the percentage of women in good jobs in the legal profession has increased. There were sharp jumps in the percentage of women professors (46 percent), of law firm partners (75 percent) and of federal judges (170 percent). That’s the good news. But wait a minute. These percentage increases are so steep because the initial figures were so low. If we look not at percentage increases but at the numbers themselves, the bad news emerges. Here’s the problem: The pipeline for legal talent has a gushing leak. “Are women stuck on the academic ladder?” Deborah Jones Merritt of Ohio State University College of Law asked in a speech before the Association of American Law Schools in 1999. She answered her own question: “Yes.” A study of clinicians published last year by Richard Neumann Jr. of Hofstra University School of Law reported a “startling picture … replicated almost everywhere in legal education: the top jobs are overwhelmingly male, and the bottom ones are overwhelmingly female.” UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS Only about one in five full professors and one in nine deans are women, but nearly 70 percent of lower-paid and low-status lecturers and instructors are women, according to 1999-2000 AALS data. A similar pattern emerges within given job categories, according to a 2000 study by Marina Angel of Temple University School of Law. Among law librarians, women were “an overwhelming majority — 62 percent — in the least desirable jobs,” despite the fact that 65 percent of law librarians are women. Among clinicians, men disproportionately hold the tenured or tenure-track jobs, while women hold two-thirds of the undesirable short-contract positions. Among legal writing directors, three-quarters of whom are women, male directors are twice as likely to be tenured, according to a 2000 study by Jo Anne Durako of Rutgers-Camden School of Law. “Women were at the bottom of each status and job category,” Angel concludes. They were also paid less, Neumann found, “in every employment status and in every experience range.” In assessing women’s progress in the law, people tend to look at the top. A different picture emerges, outside academics as well as within it, if you look at the bottom. Enrollment of women in law school reached nearly 40 percent by 1981, but 20 years later women are only 15 percent of law firm partners nationwide, according to 1998 ABA statistics. The percentage is even lower in some major cities: For instance, women constitute only 12 percent of partners in New York City, and 11 percent in Cleveland. Men are at least twice as likely as similarly qualified women to make partner, Deborah Rhode of Stanford Law School reports in the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession’s recently released study, “The Unfinished Agenda.” So law firms have a gushing pipeline, too. Why does the pipeline leak? A key problem is the way law firms and legal academics structure “full-time” work. Law is one of the few jobs in which “full-time” often is defined as a 50- or 60-hour week. Someone working those hours hasn’t time for a cat, much less a family, to quote one associate in a 1998 study. Mothers in a 1995 study of New York lawyers complained of never seeing their children awake. When the choice is between never seeing their children awake or moving on, most mothers move on: Census data show that only 8 percent of mothers in the labor force work more than 50 hours a week. A 2000 survey by Susan Saab Fortney of Texas Tech University School of Law found that 70 percent of the women surveyed — and 30 percent of the men — were interested in cutting back their hours. “If you talk to young associates, it is really extraordinary the number of them who say, ‘Please God, let them pay me $25,000 less and let me work that much less, too,’ ” said one partner quoted by Fortney. LEAKING PIPELINE The pipeline leaks because we define the ideal worker as someone who works full time and full force for 40 years, taking no time off for childbearing, child rearing or anything else. This definition clashes with the widespread and uncontroversial sense that children need and deserve time with their parents. It also clashes with our reliance on family members for elder care: 85 percent of elder care is delivered through informal networks, typically of women. In my 20 years of teaching, at American, Harvard, and the University of Virginia Law School, I have taught students who are now judges, politicians, and partners. I suspect that “homemaker” is also a significant job category. Not that most women leave the law entirely. Instead, most just leave the desirable jobs to become, say, part-time law librarians, nontenure-track clinicians, permanent associates, or “of counsel.” Can the pipeline be fixed? Schedules that would permit attorneys to work 35 or 40 hours per week would go a long way toward patching the hole, studies say. Of course, such schedules are considered “part-time” in the legal profession — and are considered a bad career move by most attorneys. Most law firms have part-time policies that are plagued by both stigma (where part-timers are taken less seriously and given worse work than their full-time peers) and “schedule creep” (where the part-timers find their hours creeping back toward full-time, while they receive part-time pay). It’s no surprise that high attrition follows. The question is how to establish a part-time program that offers proportional pay, benefits, training, and advancement. Which is to say, how to establish alternative paths to a serious career, rather than having a system with one real track and one that’s marginalized. So there’s good news and bad news as we look at women in law schools. The good news is that more women are pursuing the law. The bad news is that, unless things change, there will be more and more of what one commentator predicted in the 1980s: a pink-collar track of mommy lawyers on the bottom rungs of the profession. Joan Williams is the author of “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It” (2000). At American University’s Washington College of Law, she is a law professor, the 2001-02 American Association of University Women Scholar-in-Residence, and director of the Program on Gender, Work & Family. She is also a co-director of the Project for Attorney Retention. The PAR’s suggestions, such as its “Usability Test” to help firms gauge the effectiveness of their part-time programs, can be found at www.pardc.org.
This article originally appeared on October 12, 2001.

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