Progress and Potential

Women have undeniably made great strides in our profession in recent decades, but much remains to be done. What’s the current state of the industry, what lies ahead—and what do lawyers (male and female alike) say are the most important issues going forward

Watercolor image of person on a mountain looking at night sky
Michele M. Jochner

Michele M. Jochner

June 1, 2023 11:00 PM

HOW ARE WOMEN faring in the legal profession today? On one hand, they continue to make significant gains. Nearly 40% of lawyers in the U.S. are women. In addition, women are the majority of law school students and make up half of new associates at the country’s largest firms. Women have also made tremendous strides in the judiciary, gaining seats in both federal and state courts, and achieving momentous majorities on many state supreme court benches. On the other hand, many of the historic challenges related to retaining and advancing women in Big Law persist and, in some instances, were worsened by the disruptions of the pandemic.

It has been more than 150 years since Arabella Mansfield in 1869 became the first female lawyer in the United States after she passed the Iowa bar exam despite a state statute prohibiting women from taking the test. Her successful challenge of that restriction resulted in Iowa becoming the first state to allow women to practice law and helped open doors to their acceptance in the industry.

The courage, grit and determination of pioneers such as Mansfield formed the foundation for subsequent generations of fearless women who continued to overcome legal and societal barriers, advancing to the highest levels of the profession. These trailblazers accomplished an astounding series of firsts, shattering countless glass ceilings in the quest for equal representation, treatment and opportunities.

Current data on the status of women in the law confirms that these decades-long efforts have been fruitful. As noted, a 2022 survey by the American Bar Association found that 38% of the more than 1.3 million lawyers in the U.S. are women, a 5% increase over the past decade. This coincides with a similar growth trend for female law students: Women now make up more than 55% of law school classes, with the gap widening every year. More women than ever are leading American law schools; some 43% of deans are female.

The judicial front has also seen progress: Roughly a third of federal and state judges are women, as are four of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Likewise, women account for more than 40% of state supreme court justices. In several jurisdictions they hold a substantial majority, including Wisconsin (six of seven), Washington (seven of nine) and Illinois (five of seven).

That’s significant progress. Yet the numbers continue to lag for female attorneys in partnership positions at the country’s largest law firms. Recent studies by the National Association of Women Lawyers and the National Association for Law Placement showed that although the number of women in the junior ranks of Big Law are robust, those figures plummet at the partnership and leadership levels—a continuation of historical underrepresentation at such heights. The largest firms still have great difficulty retaining female lawyers: Women make up just 26.7% of partners and just 22.6% of equity partners. Further, only 12% of managing partners are women, and a mere 2% of firms reported that a woman was their highest-paid attorney—a drop from 8% in 2005. Notably, only in nontraditional track/staff attorney positions are women a majority, making up more than 55% of lawyers in this category. However, these positions generally pay less and do not offer the opportunity for career advancement found on the partnership track.

Over the years, many studies have tried to discern why women leave large firms. Surveys often point to a workplace culture in which women feel less supported than their male counterparts, becoming disillusioned by uneven playing fields in originations, billing credits, marketing opportunities and professional development. This, paired with a lack of flexibility and poor work-life balance, leads many women in the prime of their careers to leave large firms to explore opportunities at smaller ones, as in-house counsel or in government and academia. Studies show that most keep working, with only a small percentage leaving the legal profession or exiting the workforce altogether.

Recent studies reveal additional troubling trends. A 2021 ABA report, Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward, showed that although working remotely can have significant benefits, it may also create considerable unease for women, who face unique challenges due to a greater responsibility for childcare that can disrupt workflow. The report found that women were more worried than men about the adverse effects of remote work on selection for assignments, client access, business development and career advancement; they also had a greater fear of being laid off.

As a result, many female lawyers experience significant mental health challenges. According to the ABA’s 2022 Profile of the Legal Profession, women in the law were more likely to have stress, anxiety and depression than men, and more women than men (25% to 17) considered leaving the profession due to mental health troubles, burnout or stress. Overall, 67% of women reported experiencing moderate or severe stress, as opposed to 49% of men.

So where do we go from here? The pandemic taught us that we can adapt to new ways of thinking and still be successful. With so much of the landscape already fundamentally altered, the opportunity exists to rethink traditional practice models and usher in new paradigms more supportive of women.

Although the number of women in the junior ranks of Big Law are robust, those figures plummet at the partnership and leadership levels."

First, as noted, remote work can be a double-edged sword. Although many lawyers (including women) favor it for the flexibility it offers, it can also create a sense of isolation that fosters stress and anxiety. Recognizing that women often have more obligations both at and outside work, a hybrid model that allows some time to work remotely, combined with in-office time to make all-important personal connections—including mentoring relationships—may be a good option. Firms should ensure that lawyers on flex-time schedules will still be afforded opportunities to handle important matters, be considered for business development and training, and remain on a path for partnership and other leadership roles.

Firms should also work to stay actively engaged with their attorneys. Studies show that lawyers attach great importance to frequent and transparent communication from leaders, including about firm activities and goals, effective mentoring and sponsorship, practice group developments and career advancement. Such engagement creates an important sense of community and inclusion.

The surveys also reveal that female attorneys strongly value programs relating to lawyer well-being that encourage open and honest discussions about stress, burnout and other mental health issues. More than a third of lawyers report that guidance and resources related to enhancing mental health and well-being would be of great benefit to their practice, with 44% of women saying wellness resources were highly important. Comprehensive plans for sick leave and family leave were of even greater interest, with more than half of lawyers (and 67% of women in the profession) believing they’re “very” or “extremely” important.

In sum, although we’ve made great progress, stubborn challenges remain. Opportunities abound to rethink traditional approaches to make the practice of law more welcoming to, and inclusive of, women.

Michele M. Jochner is a partner at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP in Chicago, one of the country’s premier matrimonial law firms, where she handles high-asset, complex appellate matters, as well as critical trial pleadings requiring sophisticated analysis, advocacy and drafting. She has held numerous trailblazing positions of leadership throughout her career, including being the first woman to head several professional and community organizations. A former law clerk to two Chief Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court, a sought-after speaker and a recognized thought-leader who has penned more than 200 articles, she has been honored as one of the top 50 most influential women in law by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and has been recognized in The Best Lawyers in America® since 2015 in Family Law.

Headline Image: iStock/Stellalevi

Related Articles

The Breadwinner

by Courtney E. Ervin

Two lawyers, one big life decision: How my husband and I are working to eradicate the stigma of putting my career first.

Silhouette of women in suit stands in the middle of equal scale

Crucial Alliances

by Jane E. Young

Workplaces everywhere have changed since the start of the pandemic in ways that can be highly beneficial to women. Here’s a road map for consolidating recent gains—and making the most of them going forward.

Woman at desk working with roadmap behind her

A Beautiful Mind: Motown Beginnings, Top Dealmaker

by Sara Collin

Motown scion Farah Fakir Cook has achieved her own stardom away from the klieg lights, helping clients navigate ever-changing currents in intellectual property and technology. One crucial topic looms especially large for her in the years ahead: How current law will contend with the rise of artificial intelligence.

Woman wearing pink suit standing against desk

Top of the Mountain

by LaVon M. Johns and Patricia Brown Holmes

Making partner, ginning up huge business, earning peer respect and industry influence are laudable goals—but it’s important to pursue them methodically and mindfully. One dynamic duo who have reached the mountaintop show how it’s done.

Red flag sitting on the top of a mountain summit

Greener Than Thou

by Tanya C. Nesbitt

Litigation concerning ESG practices and environmental justice considerations is certain to increase in the years ahead. Public companies in particular: You have been warned.

Two individuals in business attire sitting in conference room

Can These Walls Talk?

by Joanne M. O'Connor

Is architecture speech? A recent landmark Eleventh Circuit case raised a host of curious issues encompassing property rights, aesthetics and the First Amendment.

Cartoon figure on the phone with documents in hand and 1st Amendment text in backdrop

Canadian Women in the Legal Profession: From Non-‘Persons’ to Chief Justices

by Sara Collin

We take an in-depth look at the challenges and optimistic future of women in the Canadian legal sector.

Canadian Women in the Legal Profession

The Future of Litigation Is Changing for Female Solicitors in the U.K.

by Catherine Baksi

The support of entire law firms, organizations and senior counsel members will be the key to encouraging female solicitors and positive change in the industry.

Changing Litigation for UK Female Solicitors

New Sheriff in Town on ESG

by Patricia Brown Holmes

Various regulatory agencies within the Biden Administration are stepping up enforcement of corporate malfeasance in the ever-trendy ESG space.

ESG Enforcement in the Corporate Environment

Follow the Money

by Rachel F. Sifuentes

Women are the future of fintech—but in the here and now, they’re still being underserved in an industry otherwise marked by explosive growth. Here’s why that must change.

Women and the Future of Fintech

Privacy Practice

by Casey Waughn

Data protection is all the rage among tech companies and state, national (and even transnational) governments alike. Is it a passing fad or here to stay? And how should businesses and groups of all sizes handle compliance with a blizzard of new laws?

Data Protection Prompt New Privacy Laws

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

The Compensation Situation

by Liz S. Washko

Pay discrimination has been outlawed for decades. Yet the issue has taken on new salience in recent years. Here’s what to know about compensation equity—and where the legal risk lies for companies.

Pay Discrimination and Equity in Legal Indust

Remote Controls

by Cynthia Morgan Ohlenforst

How law firms, lawyers and taxing authorities must adapt to remote work

Law Firms Adapt to Remote Work

Changes and Challenges

by Megan Norris

As the pandemic ebbs and many people return to the office, midsize law firms in particular must navigate a host of unprecedented questions about costs, culture and client expectations.

Changes, Challenges and Cost of the Pandemic

Carrying the Torch While Raising the Bar

by Sharen L. Nocella

Catherine Pyune McEldowney makes waves as one of the few Asian-American women at the pinnacle of a U.S. law firm.

Asian-American Representation in Law

Trending Articles

A Celebration of Excellence: The Best Lawyers in Canada 2024 Awards

by Best Lawyers

As we embark on the 18th edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™, we are excited to highlight excellence and top legal talent across the country.

Abstract image of red and white Canada flag in triangles

The Long, Short, Thick and Thin of It

by Avrohom Gefen

“Appearance discrimination” based on employees’ height and weight is the latest hot-button issue in employment law. Here’s a guide to avoid discrimination.

Woman stands in front of mirror holding suit jacket

Trailblazing Titans of the Industry: Announcing the 4th Edition Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers honor and celebrate these talented, innovative newer lawyers who are trailblazing their way to victories in courtrooms across the country.

Connected web above map of the U.S.

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees

by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

Pearls of Wisdom: Celebrating 30 Editions of Best Lawyers’ Rankings

by Best Lawyers

In celebration of our landmark 30th edition, Best Lawyers’ leadership explains how the world’s original and most trusted legal awards maintain their esteem, integrity and reputation for excellence among the top legal entities and their clients.

Best Lawyers logo for 30th edition release with gold glitter in background

Vanguards of Victory: Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada 2024

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada™ has been announced, and the lawyers showcased by these awards are rising to the challenge each day as advocates for clients all across the country.

Blue and black background with small squares connected by lines

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background


Thomson Rogers: Toronto Personal Injury Lawyers

by Thomson Rogers

Since establishment in 1935, Toronto-based firm Thomson Rogers has consistently delivered results for their clients struggling through complex litigation.

Top of a Staircase Featuring Two Large Black Doors with Bookshelves and Chairs on Each Side

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees

by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots

The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers proudly announces lawyers recognized in South Africa for 2023.

South African flag


How Long Does a Felony Stay On Your Record in California

by Peter Blair

A felony can remain on your record for life in California. Some felonies qualify for expungement. Learn how to remove a felony conviction from your record in California.

Hand setting bird free out of a guarded fence

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2024 Launch

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce The Best Lawyers in Australia™ for 2023, including the top lawyers and law firms from Australia.

Australian Parliament beside water at sunset

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers

by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US