Women in Law

When I graduated from high school in 1977, I was honored to win a scholarship for a “Woman Going Into a Non-Traditional Field” from a local women’s group.  I was a bit surprised by the name of the award, as it had never occurred to me that a woman in law was considered unusual.

The year I started college, only 30.1% of the persons entering law school were women. When I started law school in 1981, the number had risen to 37.2%.  The percentage continued to edge up and was 47.1% for the entering class in 2009.[1] Despite this increase, in 2009 the U. S Bureau of Labor statistics reported that only 32.4% of all lawyers were women, although it is encouraging to note that we are 44.2% of judges, magistrates and other judicial workers.[2]

Occasionally, little incidents remind me that female lawyers aren’t as common as I like to think.  One of my duties is to schedule cases for trial at docket calls.  At a docket call just a few weeks ago, I looked around the courtroom and realized there were 15 male in the room and only one female lawyer: me.  Late last year, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, I was checking the schedule in the Chesterfield County Courthouse when an older woman approached me.  “You look like you know what you’re doing,” she said, “do you work for a lawyer?”  I smiled, told her that, yes, I work at a law firm, and helped her find her case.  Shortly thereafter, a male lawyer I’ve known casually for many years, was clearly taken aback when someone else referred to me as an attorney.  “You’re a lawyer?” he asked with surprise.  You can’t do much more than laugh at moments like these.  They’re not a daily occurrence, but, after practicing law for over 26 years, they happen more often than I’d expect.

Part of the reason may be the relatively small number of female lawyers in high profile positions. The first woman to serve on the U. S. Supreme Court was Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.  Even now, 30 years later, a total of only four women have been named to the U. S. Supreme Court, the last two since 2009. As appointments to the U. S. Supreme Court are for life, and Chief Justice John Roberts is a relatively young man, it seems likely that it will be a long time before we see a woman appointed chief justice.

In Virginia, we have had two women serve on the Supreme Court. Governor Baliles appointed the first, Elizabeth Lacy, in 1988. The second, Cynthia Kinser, was named to the Court in 1997 by Governor Allen. Justice Lacy retired from the Court in August 2007, leaving Justice Kinser the sole woman on the Court. However, having been elected to the position by her fellow justices, she will become Chief Justice Kinser on February 1, 2011, the first female Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. If the small number of women in high profile positions has anything to do with people finding female lawyers remarkable, perhaps the elevation of Justice Kinser to Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court will bring a new awareness to Virginians of the number of women in the profession.

[1] See Report of the American Bar Association, “First Year and Total J.D. Enrollment by Gender 1947 – 2008”, at http://www.abanet.org/legaled/statistics/charts/stats%20-%206.pdf.

[2] See Report of U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey (CPS), “Household Data Annual Averages, Table 11. Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity”, at   http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.pdf.