The first woman admitted to the bar was Arabella Mansfield.
Despite the bar exam being available only to men in the 19th century, Mansfield took the test anyway, passed with high scores, and then fought the courts to amend Iowa licensing statutes to allow women and minorities. In 1869 she became the first female lawyer in the United States.
History is full of the struggle and strength of women who fought for their rightful places in the seats of law. Though we have come a long way since the days of Arabella Mansfield, there are still hills and mountains to climb before we reach the summit.
We’ll explore the progress we’ve made—from Arabella to RBG and the future of women in legal.
Women in Law: A Brief History
The year after Arabella Mansfield was admitted to the Iowa bar, Ada Kepley became the first woman to graduate from law school in the United States. Two years later, in 1872, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African American woman to become a lawyer in the United States.
However, in 1873 the Supreme Court decided that Illinois was constitutionally allowed to deny Myra Bradwell and other women a legal license. The 8-1 decision claimed the 14th Amendment's Privileges or Immunities Clause did not legally grant the right to practice a profession.
The Supreme Court's decision would be only a speed bump for women on the road to representation in the legal field. In 1879, Belva Lockwood won a great victory for women. She championed a bill that would allow women to practice in United States federal courts and argue cases before the Supreme Court; Lockwood became the first woman to do so in 1880.
The National Association of Women Lawyers was founded in 1899, and 20th-century progress began. Though the percentage of women lawyers remained low through 1970, women saw a historic ascent in the 80s and 90s—from 3% of U.S. lawyers to 20%.
Though the 21st century hasn't yet seen the leap of the 20th, women have progressed to 37% of practicing U.S. lawyers in 2021.
Women's Recent Progress in Legal Careers
On August 10, 1993, arguably one of the most inspiring and influential judges of the Supreme Court was sworn in. Her road to a spot in the annals of legal history includes Harvard and Columbia Law School—where she graduated joint first while raising a child— to becoming the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court, and much more. Until 2020, Ruth Bader Ginsburg blazed trails for women and gender rights.
In the 2018 elections, we saw more women enter careers in lawmaking than in any other election in U.S. history. Additionally, 2018 was also the year women outnumbered men in law school for the third year in a row. In 2020, that trend continued into its fifth year. However, these facts paint only a broad picture, and the finer details reveal more progress to be made before women are equally represented in legal.
Though women outnumber their male counterparts in law school, they still make up less of the practicing lawyers in the U.S. — 37.4%. Additionally, the number of women in partner and equity partner positions has scarcely increased in the last eighteen years. A 2018 report by the American Bar Association found that women made up 22.7% of partners and 19% of equity partners. The report also found that women made up 27.1% of federal and state judges, 26.4% of in-house counsel for Fortune 500 companies, and 32.4% of law school deans.
However, large law firms in the U.S. seem to recognize this and take steps toward increasing women's representation in equity partner roles. On top of this list — representing law firms with 251 to 600 attorneys — is the Fragomen law firm, with 50% of women representing equity partnership roles.
Women Lawyers in In-House Legal Teams
There's an unfortunate lack of research on women attorneys when it comes to in-house legal teams in the United States. However, women are closing the gap faster than law firms in in-house leadership positions.
Women who hold General Counsel positions have grown to account for 37.5% to men's 57.9%. Additionally, the pay gap is narrowing, with women earning ninety-five cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. While we recognize that this does not represent equality, it does show that women are filling the in-house legal field.
In-house positions present a challenge for women in the legal field because most c-suite level executives are men. There are seven times as many male corporate executives as female executives. This bar will need to move to ensure in-house legal teams working with executives are more equally balanced.
Countries like Canada are seeing more encouraging statistics. In 2020, 51% of in-house counsel positions were held by women, compared to men's 46%. However, differences in compensation for these positions still require work. Men are paid an average annual salary of 177,000 CAD, while women are left behind with 158,000 CAD.
Funding of Women-Led Businesses
An important metric for measuring equality in the overall business world for women is funding for women-led businesses. These numbers show progress and encouragement but also highlight room for improvement.
- The United States has 12.3 million women-owned businesses (40%).
- Women-owned businesses generate $1.8 trillion per year in the United States.
- Women of color started 64% of women-owned businesses last year.
- Women have a 65.5% success rate with crowdfunding. Men succeed at a 61.4% rate.
- There are 114% more women business owners than 20 years ago.
- Women-owned businesses added 500,000 jobs to the American market between 1997 and 2007.
- Private tech companies owned by women realize a 35% higher ROI.
Where Improvement Is Needed
- Women-led businesses receive only 7% of venture capital funds for their startups.
- Women make up only 12% of decision-makers and 2.4% of founding partners at venture capital firms.
- Global venture capital funding dropped dramatically in the first year of the pandemic.
- Women receive on average $5,000 less than men on loans.
- On average, women entrepreneurs ask for $33,000 less in financing than men.
Interestingly, Green Tech is a field where women are really closing the funding gap. In the U.K., £2.8 billion has been raised since 2018 by women-led Green Tech businesses.
While there’s a lot that needs to change in the system before we can expect to see pay parity across genders, men can still be individual agents in their law firms and business. Read Jen White’s five tips for becoming a more inclusive ally and creating gender equity on legal teams.
Women March On in Legal
We've certainly come a long way since the days of Arabella Mansfield fighting for the right to practice law. We at Lexion recognize we have much further to go. This month, we celebrate all women who have steered our society in the direction of equality and representation.
We’re excited to highlight some of the amazing women at Lexion and in the legal industry in our Women’s History Month blog series. Follow along as we highlight:
- Shima Salimi, Staff Engineer at Lexion
- Jane Fronczak, Senior Customer Success Manager at Lexion
- Lisa Lang, General Counsel at Kentucky State University
- Krysta Johnson, Senior Legal and Business Operations Manager at Lexion
As we look back at past accomplishments, we must also look where improvement is needed and ask ourselves what we can do. Lexion helps women make their legal teams more productive and happy. We do this by eliminating busywork through automation and AI, accelerating your team's contract review process.
If you're interested in joining these incredible women in legal, check out our open roles.