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  • Afterward:A Comparative Look at the Status of Women in the Legal Profession
  • Carroll Seron (bio)

Today, young girls in many nations of the world may decide on a career in law in the same matter-of-fact manner as their grandmothers decided to become a teacher, social worker, nurse, or librarian.1 Sociologists Cynthia Fuchs Epstein and Abigail Kolker remind us that today we also take for granted that women may sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, serve as Secretary of State, or hold leadership positions in some of the most powerful law firms in the country—and even in the world.2 Rereading Epstein’s Women in Law, published in 1981, reminds us, however, that what we today take for granted in fact represents a revolution in the gender composition of law (and other professions) in what is actually a remarkably short span of time.3 During the first wave of the Women’s Movement, which coincided with the Progressive Era in the United States, a few pioneering women battled for the opportunity to be admitted to the practice of law; the challenges were many and the proportion of women who joined the ranks of legal practice remained miniscule through the early 1960s.4 In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the second wave of the U.S. Women’s Movement in the 1960s that picture began to change. Today, the gender composition of legal education hovers at parity across the hierarchy of U.S. law [End Page 1359] schools;5 women represent about 32 percent of practitioners in the United States,6 though “the United States lags far behind many other countries.”7 The articles in this IJGLS issue both shed light on the feminization of legal practice from a global perspective and provide snapshots of how feminization unfolds in various nations, often highlighting the challenges that remain to be addressed.

This revolution in the gender composition of the legal profession was not limited to the United States. In his 1989 comparative analysis, Richard Abel shows that the patterns of stasis and expansion in the legal profession are similar for the United States and most European countries.8 Further, after a long period of stability in the early part of the twentieth century and in large part due to the impact of two world wars, by the 1960s, there was the beginning of consistent growth in the size of the profession with the expansion of access to higher education, the increasing role of governmental regulation, and the emergence of new areas of practice, including the globalization of legal practice itself.9 Coincident with this expansion, Abel shows, was the beginnings of change in the gender composition of the profession across these countries, such that “the entry of women explains virtually all of the increase [while] the number of men admitted to the profession remained relatively constant or even declined.”10 More specifically, Abel shows that this pattern is essentially the same in the United States, England and Wales, Scotland, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Norway. Further, “only in India and Japan have women remained an insignificant fraction of the profession,” Abel notes11—“anomalous cases” that persist to this day.12

Sociologist Ethan Michelson provides a fascinating update of Abel’s earlier portrait of the gender transformation in legal practice. Michelson coins the term “legal demography” to organize his analysis of the feminization of legal practice from a global perspective. To this end, he [End Page 1360] assembled a longitudinal dataset constructed from census data across eighty-six countries to “measure changing patterns of female participation in legal practice” and “to identify conditions promoting women’s entry into the legal profession.”13 In other words, his goal is to tease out causal mechanisms of the feminization of the legal profession. The previous discussion hints at the two competing explanations of this development. Building on Abel’s findings of an association between bar expansion and feminization, scholars have developed the concept of “gender queuing,” which argues that women are able to join traditionally male fields, including law, when “an occupation expands beyond the point where demand for labor can be satisfied by qualified men...


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