Women in the legal profession: Successes and challenges

Women In The Legal Profession
Women in the legal industry have made tremendous progress in achieving equality, but in many cases, continue to lag in being promoted.

Women in the legal profession have fought hard over centuries (yes, centuries) to earn the respect of our peers.

This month, we celebrate the contributions of women to our world, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to examine our place in the industry as it currently stands, how far we’ve come, and what we have to do to keep making progress.


There’s no doubt that women have made tremendous progress in achieving equality, but in many cases, continue to lag in being promoted.

It’s hard to celebrate the contributions of women without acknowledging what we have overcome. Only 176 years ago, women made a Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention.

This was the establishment of women’s rights in the United States.

Since 1848, women have used the legal process to further define those rights, but it’s a tough uphill battle not without its setbacks.

Consider these two rulings from 30 years later:

  • In 1873 in Bradwell v. Illinois, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state has the right to exclude a married woman from practicing law.
  • In 1875 in Minor v Happersett, The U.S. Supreme Court declared that despite the privileges and immunities clause, a state can prohibit a woman from voting. In Minor, the court declared women as “persons,” but held that we constitute a “special category of nonvoting citizens.”

Thankfully, times has changed, and we’ve come a long way since then.

In this article, I want to use my personal experience and take this chance to reflect on women in the legal profession.

The current position of women in the legal profession

Gender norms affect how women’s rights are perceived. The reversal of Roe v. Wade made it clear women continue to struggle for body autonomy.

According to Reuters, a major shift has occurred in the legal industry. In 2023, 50.3% of U.S. associates were women, marking the first time women outnumbered men in the practice of law. The number of women enrolled in U.S. law schools overtook men eight years ago.

This is a major win for women in law. Now, it is a quantity versus quality issue. While we have made progress in the legal industry, my experience has been that women still struggle to achieve equality in advancement and opportunity.

While women make up 50% of associates in law firms, women only make up 27.70% of partners in law firms.

That number dwindles to less than 1% for black women as partners in law firms. Women’s lack of body autonomy in reproductive rights could undermine progress. Creating or expanding a family is life-changing. 

It is not a surprise that there are not more female partners, the advancement of women always seems to require more justification.

When evaluating people, specifically women, it often felt like things other than the work and the quality of the work were given consideration.

Overcoming barriers

Truthfully, the place of women is not much different from black people in America. Black people in the legal profession and their associated challenges is a topic for another article, but the key point is that we are both minority groups; with rights, derived out of necessity and collective demand. The suppression of those rights and the generational effects are, of course, very different.

When I was first introduced to diversity and inclusion in 2008, the focus was the number of diverse people. What became clear is that while our numbers of diverse talent were increasing, our environments and atmospheres were not expanding to consider diverse talent.

Diversity and inclusion did not focus enough on uncovering subconscious bias. We have been conditioned to think as we do, and the truth is all of us are biased. I have seen where meaningful subconscious bias training has completely changed my relationship with coworkers.

Those training sessions were not comfortable conversations, but, I know, they created change. It is interesting that all of the subconscious bias training I attended focused on cultural bias, never gender bias.

My perception has been that women, just as with black people, should be grateful for the progress. The relevant inquiry is not, how we feel about the progress, but, how we go farther. This is a “Brave New World,” where women must expect more than a shrinking gap but outright elimination of the Gender Gap.

Normalizing our presence

The atmosphere of the legal environment, whether in-house or in private practice, still primarily looks the same. There are more women in the room, but we lag in equity positions.

That means women in the legal profession are not being promoted at the same rate as their male counterparts. If women continue to assimilate, then we risk losing our voice to one that already exists. 

 As women continue to enter the room, now is the time to normalize our presence. Women have to be advocates for themselves and other women.

We have to be willing, to risk our association with negative stigmas, for a greater cause, of upgrading the atmosphere in the practice of law.

Think of it as… your Beyonce moment. Both sexes utilize a functional approach to problem-solving, men are dominated by that approach, while women mix functional with aesthetic.

Women are not just concerned with the problem itself, we are often concerned with the atmosphere that created it.

Seeking allies

This idea of creating new social norms is not entirely in the hands of women. It will require allies. This means people willing to challenge popular thinking.

Allies should not only create space, they should help change the narrative. The American Psychology Association found that women may not be able to harness the power of anger in the courtroom.

Women who showed emotion were perceived negatively and ultimately not hired. The effects of expressing emotion extend far beyond the courtroom; women are quickly labeled as difficult or angry the first moment we buck the system.

I was once speaking in a meeting, and the message I was sharing was difficult. I had a male co-worker interrupt me to tell me I should “Smile more.” I had absolutely no idea how to respond to that. 

The narrative around emotions must change, especially for lawyers. Allies can help by redirecting superficial conversations about women to the work that is being done and the quality of the work.

Just as women have to be seen, so must our allies. Allies have to understand and value the care that women bring to the workplace.

Furthering a more productive culture

With women being better advocates for themselves, and everyone challenging their own biases, a utopian culture emerges.

I appreciate that we have been in a moment with diversity and inclusion, but we can act before a hashtag emerges.

Today, any company can tell if there is equity in their organization; are men and women paid the same for the same job? That is a quantitative question.

To get to the heart of your organization’s culture or atmosphere, anonymously poll your employees and engage an outside firm to assist in evaluating your organization for inclusion, which, I may add, is not the same as diversity.

Require the companies you partner with or work for to have a demonstrated commitment to gender diversity and inclusion.

Gender equality, like, racial equality, is not as hard to achieve as we like to think, but first, we must have the hard conversations.

One Legal: Delightfully easy eFiling

One Legal Dashboard
Manage all your California and Nevada court filing from a single platform. Receive status updates and court-returned documents online while we handle all the logistics of getting your documents filed. Find out more about eFiling with One Legal now.
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    More to explore

    What is One Legal?

    We’re California’s leading litigation services platform, offering eFiling, process serving, and courtesy copy delivery in all 58 California counties. Our simple, dependable platform is trusted by over 20,000 law firms to file and serve over a million cases each year.

    One Legal Dashboard

    Legal Up Virtual Conference

    Register now to get actionable strategies and inspiration to level up your legal career.