Gender Barriers in the Legal Profession: Implications for Career Development of Female Law Students

Article excerpt

To draw attention to the changes occurring in the legal profession, in general, and in law school, in particular, this analytical discussion aims at examining some of the key issues pertinent to the life career development of female students in law schools. The authors explore gender-related psychosocial aspects, such as the differences between the career patterns of men and women. The applicability to women of key tenets from several career development theories is considered, and several specific career counseling implications and strategies, aimed at addressing the unique needs of women studying in a law school environment, are provided.


Our purpose in writing this article is to explore and consider some of the key issues related to the life career development of female students in law schools. Although research has been carried out on the career patterns of women who have been working in the legal profession for several years, little is known about the impact of gender-related issues on female students during their law school years. As an increasing number of female students pursue the study of law--a professional training realm traditionally dominated by men--there arises a need to better understand the career psychology that is particularly relevant to female law students. The necessity and significance of such an examination are based on the assumption that female law students may encounter a range of gender-related psychological, sociological, and cultural issues in the course of their professional pursuits. As a result of the gender inequality that persists in the legal profession, female law students may need to be better prepared, by gaining insight and skills for their career planning and decision making, to cope with how these issues affect their career choices.

With such a goal in mind, we tackle the central topic in two steps. First, we present a sketch of changes that have been taking place in the legal profession, in general, and law school, in particular. We draw attention to psychosocial aspects that are pertinent to the career development of female law school students, including a comparison of the differences between the career patterns of men and women in the legal profession, and we analyze how gender influences can affect the career decisions women make during law school and on graduation. Second, we examine several career development theories that are applicable to women, followed by implications and specific suggestions for career counseling that address the unique experiences and needs of women studying in a law school environment. It is hoped that these implications and suggested strategies will be useful for career advisers who work directly with female law students, as well as for career advisers who help female students in other professional training programs in higher education.


Over the last 30 years, the entry of large numbers of women into law schools has dramatically altered the gender and racial composition of the legal profession in Canada and the United States (Catalyst, 2001; Glater, 2001; Hull & Nelson, 2000; Komhauser & Revesz, 1995; Wilson, 1993). In Canada during the 1970s, women made up less than 10% of law school students, and it was not until the mid-1980s that women began to constitute a significant proportion, accounting for approximately 30% of law students in most provinces (Wilson, 1993). By 1993, Wilson's report on gender equality in the legal profession found that women were not only equally represented in some provinces but actually outnumbered men. In recent years, this pattern has continued as the number of women admitted to law schools in universities across Canada and the United States is equal to or surpasses the number of men who are admitted (Collins, 2001; Glater, 2001; Macaulay, 2001).

However, despite their advances in gaining admittance to law school, women continue to face gender-based barriers once they enter the profession, and partly as a result, they are leaving the profession at significantly higher rates than their male peers are leaving it (Brockman, 2001; Catalyst, 2001; Wilson, 1993). …