The Influx of Women into Legal Professions: An Economic Analysis: Women Are Increasingly Attracted to the Field of Law, Possibly Because of Its Favorable Economic Factors, Such as Relatively High Earnings Early in the Career and Ease of Re-Entry into the Field after Periods of Nonparticipation in the Labor Force. (Women in the Field of Law)

Article excerpt

The year 2001 was a watershed year in legal education. For the first time, female law school entrants outnumbered men. (1) This event is the culmination of a trend over the last half-century which saw the legal profession experience rapid increases in the number and percent of women receiving law degrees. At the same time, a large body of literature documented a "second class" professional status of women in the legal field. If women are treated so poorly in the legal profession, why do they find it an attractive career choice?

Previous examinations of the status of women in law have compared female to male law graduates. This research examines the proposition that the correct economic comparison, especially from an occupational choice standpoint, is not between genders within a profession but the relative desirability across professions for women. As such, this article compares the relative economic rewards to women of four professional degrees: law, medicine, M.B.A.s, and social science/psychology doctorates.

Background and literature review

Chart 1 compares the relative share of degrees awarded to women from 1966 to 1996 (indexed to 100.0 in 1966) for five "reference" professions (law, medicine, M.B.A.s, social science Ph.D.s, and psychology Ph.D.s). Women have increased their share of total law degrees by almost twelve-fold (in 1966, only 3.8 percent of law degrees were awarded to women; in 1996, this statistic was 43.5 percent). (2) In terms of the relative growth of women in the profession, law trails only M.B.A.s over this period but is substantially in excess of the other professional fields. (3) As stated by Professor Sherwin Rosen, "... the story of the legal profession (and, similarly, for the medical practice) in the 1970s and 1980s is the entry of women ..." (4)

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Part of the explanation for this growth in female lawyers has been the revolution in female participation in the labor force in general (overall female labor force participation rates grew to 58.9 percent from 39.8 percent for the January 1966-96 period). (5) Another explanation is the increased number of college degrees awarded to women, which grew to 55.2 percent of all bachelor degrees in 1996, up from 42.6 percent in 1966. (6) However, the "feminization rate" of the legal profession exceeds by several-fold these trends in labor force participation and degree awards.

The general conclusion of previous research into the status of women in the legal profession is that women are treated poorly. Wynn R. Huang found that "the earnings structure found in the law profession rewards men more than it does females." (7) Huang also found that women receive lower benefits than men for attendance at a prestigious law school, and suffer earnings penalties after having families. (8) Paul W. Mattessich and Cheryl W. Heilman's study of University of Minnesota law graduates found that women in the legal profession earn less than men, and were discriminated against in the workplace. (9) Sherwin Rosen found that female lawyers earned significantly less than men. (10) Robert L. Nelson found that female lawyers worked in "less remunerative, if not lower status, positions." (11) John Hagan and Fiona Kay's 1995 study of Canadian lawyers found large gender differences, especially in earnings. (12) Robert G. Wood, Mary E. Corcoran, and Paul N. Courant's study of University of Michigan Law School Graduates found that even after controlling for childcare, work history, school performance, and other variables, about one-fourth of the male-female wage gap remained unexplained. (13) These findings seem at odds with the rapid growth of female law graduates.

Richard H. Sander and E. Douglas Williams argue that the rapid feminization of the law was the result of three factors: 1) job opportunities in teaching, a traditionally female occupation, declined forcing women into other careers; 2) law was "disproportionately attractive" to women during the period of increasing female labor force participation, especially for women of upper- and upper-middle income families; and 3) high relative salaries of lawyers to bachelor-degree recipients. …