Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

The Not-So-New Normal of the Legal Profession: Facing and Confounding the Odds*

Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

The Not-So-New Normal of the Legal Profession: Facing and Confounding the Odds*

Article excerpt


As you may know, this year the Nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the signature legislation of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" initiative, which barred unequal application of voter registration requirements, forbade discrimination in hiring practices, and outlawed segregation in public accommodations.1 In April, four presidents spoke at the L.B.J. Presidential Library's Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas to commemorate the Act and to pay special homage to the dream to which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously gave expression.2 Half of that number-President Obama and former President Clinton-are lawyers. And although former Presidents Bush and Carter, as well as a number of other courageous and notable people, also spoke at the Summit, it makes sense to foreground leaders who have been lawyers, and vice versa, in this discussion about the legal profession. The twin goals of L.B.J.'s Great Society-economic opportunity and social justice-provide the framework for the discussion.3

The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act provides a useful benchmark for examining the dynamics that have led to what some commentators are calling the legal profession's "new normal." As Georgetown Law professor Abe Krash observed in 2008, "[t]he social and economic structure and the culture of the profession are very different from what they were 50 years ago."4 As such an observation reflects, today's legal profession is not the one that existed for previous generations. Some of the differences are cosmetic; others, more substantive. Some have proven enduring; others, fleeting. In any case, a survey of the profession as it is now, textured by an understanding of the changes that have marked the past fifty years, will facilitate a better understanding of how far we have come, where we are now, and where we have yet to go. Accordingly, using the passage of the Civil Rights Act as a reference point, we will address some of the social and economic implications of the "new normal" before turning to a few strategies about how to succeed in it.


We begin with social justice because it is in this regard that the progress that lawyers have made-and the challenges that the legal profession still confronts-are most apparent.

A. Gender

Consider as proof of progress, for example, the fact that both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, like their husbands, are lawyers. But they are the only First Ladies in U.S. history to have been lawyers.5 By contrast, more than half of this country's forty-four presidents-twenty-five to be exact-have been lawyers. They also all have been men. Accordingly, Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Clinton simultaneously evidence the increased opportunities available to women lawyers and would-be women lawyers as well as the challenges that continue to obstruct their progress.

The challenges are due in large part to the very thing that makes the legal profession possible: the law. In 1872, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Bradwell v. Illinois, "that women had no constitutional right to be admitted to state bars."6 That decision, the Court determined, was leftto the States.7 Although Belle Babb Mansfield became the first woman admitted to a state bar (Iowa) in 1869,8 women represented a scant three percent of the legal profession nearly one hundred years later-four years prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act-in 1960.9 By 1980, however, that figure had grown to eight percent.10 And today, women represent a third of all lawyers.11

More positively, since 1993, women have represented nearly fifty percent of all law students.12 That is considerable improvement when we consider that in 1967-three years after the Civil Rights Act was passed- women constituted less than five percent of first-year law students.13 Women actually are overrepresented today when it comes to securing judicial clerkships,14 which "have always been obtained disproportionately when measured by race and gender[. …

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