Although nearly half of law school students now are women, a new study finds a disproportionate share wind up attending institutions with a poorer job-placement record, which can shape their future in the field.
Women occupy nearly half of all the seats in American law schools, gaining credentials for a professional career once all but reserved for men. But their large presence on campus does not mean women have the same job prospects as men.
New research indicates that female law students are clustered in lower-ranked schools, and fewer women are enrolled in the most prestigious institutions. Such distribution can make a significant difference in whether female law graduates land legal jobs that pay higher wages and afford long-term job security and professional advancement.
Women “are less likely than men to attend the schools that send a high percentage of graduates into the profession,” said Deborah J. Merritt, a law professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, who co-wrote the report called, “The Leaky Pipeline for Women Entering the Legal Profession.”
Just the facts
The ‘leaky pipeline’ for women in the legal profession begins with law-school admissions
Law-school applicants as a share of college graduates
Men: 3.4%. Women: 2.6%.
Applicants admitted to law school
Men: 79.5%. Women: 75.8%.
Attending schools with...
Best placement rate
Men: 53.4 %. Women: 46.6 %.
Middling placement rate
Men: 54.3 %. Women: 45.7%.
Poor placement rate
Men: 44.1 %. Women: 55.9 %.
Source: Law School Transparency, Law School Admissions Council
This means women “start at a disadvantage” that may well continue throughout their professional lives, Merritt said.
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Despite the high numbers with law degrees, women hold fewer than 20 percent of partnerships at law firms and are underrepresented in the higher echelons of law, including the ranks of judges, corporate counsel, law school deans and professors.
Merritt and Kyle McEntee, executive director of the nonprofit group Law School Transparency, decided to examine American Bar Association data and other official statistics to see why fewer qualified women made it into the legal profession’s highest rungs even though there has been general numerical equality in law-school enrollment for more than two decades.
They found that the disadvantage for women was created by more than overall numbers; it began even before law school, when a smaller percentage of female college graduates applied to law school compared with similarly credentialed men.
Even though women earn 57 percent of college degrees, they account for just under 51 percent of law-school applicants. And when they do apply, they are less likely to be accepted.
For 2015, for example, 75.8 percent of applications from women were accepted compared with 79.5 percent of applications by men, according to figures from the Law School Admission Council, which collects data on the gender and ethnicity of applicants.
There is also a gap depending on a law school’s national ranking or its job-placement success, according to the study.
Overall, 49.4 percent of the country’s nearly 114,000 law-school students are women, but that percentage drops at the top 50 nationally ranked schools. Top-tier schools, in the 2015-16 academic year, enrolled just over 47 percent of women as students compared with lower-ranked or unranked law schools, which enrolled 53.5 percent women as students, according to study data.
Law-school rankings are sometimes disputed, so the research team checked the enrollment figures at schools with strong records of postgraduate employment.
Law schools that claimed they placed 85 percent of their graduates in gold-standard jobs — defined as full-time, long-term positions that require passing the state bar exam — had fewer women enrolled than men, by 46.6 to 53.4 percent.
The divide was even greater in the next rung of schools, where 70 to 84 percent of students found jobs requiring bar passage. The enrollment discrepancy between women and men was 45.7 vs. 54.3 percent.
In contrast, the lowest-performing schools — the ones that listed fewer than 40 percent of their graduates in jobs that require bar passage — had noticeably higher female enrollment, at 55.9 percent of students.
That indicates women who graduate from less prestigious schools have fewer opportunities to be hired for their first full-fledged legal job, which can be decisive in shaping a career, Merritt said.
One reason for the gender gap, Merritt and McEntee said in the report, was that the national rankings have become so important that the 50 highest-ranked schools “increasingly stress LSAT (Law School Admission Test) scores over other admissions factors as they fight for better rankings. This disadvantages women, who have lower LSAT scores (on average) than men.”
Women score an average 2 points lower than men on the LSAT, which is still the key admissions number. Since school rankings are weighted heavily on this number, that discrepancy gives elite law schools a greater reason — all other things being equal — to accept a man over a woman.
Merritt also noted that test scores affect financial aid, which can be crucial in choosing a law school.
Prestigious schools have high tuition, and generous financial assistance helps to defray those costs, which can easily reach over $100,000.
Currently, there is little transparency in how law schools negotiate tuition assistance and whether there are gender differences influencing how such sums are distributed, although most schools admit they bargain over their overall price tag.
Some law schools that found their rolls seriously lacking female students have taken active steps to recruit them.
Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, for example, began taking a more active approach when its 2013 entering class shrank to 38 percent women, a drop from 45 percent the previous year.
“We noticed the dip in women and it was very disconcerting,” said Nancy Staudt, the school’s dean. “We have stepped up our efforts through social media and other means, to talk to those considering law school and those who have been accepted, and we try to find the right fit for them.”
By 2014, the school, which is 18th in the national rankings, had an entering class that was 43 percent female. The current 2016 class is 50 percent women, Staudt said.
More deans have been hands-on with recruiting since applicant numbers began to slide and tuition began to climb in recent years.
But while postgraduate employment is more transparent, the admissions process at the country’s 200-plus accredited law schools remains murky.
Jay Shively, dean for admissions and financial aid at Wake Forest University School of Law, said that the admissions process was “very numbers-driven” and that schools were aware of the repercussions “if they lose a couple of points on U.S. News,” referring to the U.S. News & World Report annual law school rankings.
“If you are a top 50 school, I think you have to be very aware of your medians and how losing a point or gaining a point might impact your ranking and thus the sort of student that might be attracted to you,” Shively said in a podcast produced by Law School Transparency.