Diversity in the Profession:
The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor has given us a time not only to reflect on her career and her pivotal role on the United States Supreme Court, but also to reflect on the status of women and other minorities in the legal profession. Justice O’ Connor was the first woman to serve as a justice on our nation’s highest court and in the 24 years she served as one of the nine most influential lawyers in the country, women made significant strides in the profession.
There is no doubt that there are more women
attorneys working in today’s legal profession.
Over the past three decades women have gone from numbering
only a handful of incoming first-year law students to currently comprising
more than half of their class. Now
most legal employers seek to hire women.
A few firms have promoted women to their highest managing partner
positions. There are more women serving on the bench than
there were even ten years ago. Clearly there is more opportunity for women in
this generation than when Justice O’ Connor graduated from Stanford
Law and her first offers of employment were of the cleri
So, is gender diversity still an issue? Some will likely conclude that women have reached complete parity in our previously male-dominated profession, and there is no need for further discussion or effort to ensure that continues. However, women still have not consistently or proportionately broken through the glass ceiling where the positions of greatest influence remain overwhelmingly male-dominated.
A recent study by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession found that women remain underrepresented in positions of the greatest status, influence and economic reward. Women account for only approximately 15 percent of partners in law firms, 15 percent of federal judgeships, 10 percent of law school deans, less than 10 percent of general counsels, and 5 percent of managing partners of large law firms. Men are at least twice as likely as similarly qualified women to obtain partnerships.1 The under-representation of women of color is even greater.
These barriers exist not because of overt or intentional acts of discrimination, which are rarely experienced, but due to unconscious stereotypes and bias, inadequate access to support networks, and perhaps most importantly, inflexible workplace structures.
The Minnesota State Bar Association has pursued
considerable efforts to eliminate bias and to promote diversity in
the profession. Since 1997 the MSBA Women in the Legal Profession (WILP) Committee has surveyed Minnesota legal employers, both
private firms and public employers, in areas relating to hiring, promotion,
retention, compensation, involvement in firm governance and culture,
sexual harassment, and professional growth.
This Self Audit for Gender Equity or “SAGE”
has provided the statisti
The MSBA Diversity Committee annually provides continuing legal education courses aimed at eliminating bias and promoting diversity in the profession. The MSBA participates in and supports the efforts of the Minority Bar Summit where leaders of the minority bars come together with bar leaders from the state and the metropolitan bar associations to discuss issues of common concern and means to further the objectives of eliminating bias in the legal profession and the court system.
With all these efforts in ou
This year, through the efforts of the MSBA Task Force on Diversity in the Profession,
we will expand the SAGE Program to include survey information related to race.
It is my hope that by establishing a baseline in these statistics,
It was President Reagan’s concern over the lack of gender equity that led to Justice O’ Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court, a move that set an example for many and opened doors for women lawyers across the country. Why is diversity in our profession important? It gives us credibility; it promotes the public’s trust and confidence in us; it makes us desirable, accessible, and approachable by all. It is necessary in order to be responsive to the needs of the diversity of clients we represent, and thus in the end, it is good for the profession. c
1 The Unfinished Agenda: Women and The Legal Profession, report of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, 2001.
SUSAN M. HOLDEN is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. A partner and member of the board of directors of the Minneapolis personal injury firm of Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey, Ltd., she is certified as a civil trial specialist by the MSBA.