The law firm Brune & Richard is an anomaly. In a world where female lawyers represent fewer than 20 percent of partners in private practices, women make up 12 of the 18 lawyers at Brune & Richard.
And for founder Hillary Richard, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988, that number makes a difference.
“What it presents for female lawyers, particularly younger lawyers, is an array of possibilities that they don’t see at other firms,” Richard said. “Women who come to work here know that being a woman is certainly not going to hold you back, is not going to be an impediment to partnership, and is not going to be an impediment professionally in any way.”
But when female students graduate from the Law School, most must grapple with the large gender gap in the legal profession, especially at the level of the most prestigious positions. According to a Feb. 2013 report by the American Bar Association, fewer than one-third of federal and state judgeships are filled by women, and only 15 percent of equity partners in law firms are female. Just 21.6 percent of general counsel at Fortune 500 companies are female lawyers, and women make up barely one-fifth of all deans in U.S. law schools.
Harvard Law professor David B. Wilkins ’77, an expert on the legal profession, said he thinks this severe gender disparity creates a vicious cycle that prevents many women from moving up in the field.
“I think it’s true as in many other places in society,” he said. “If people see people like themselves succeeding, they are more likely to succeed.”
At Harvard Law School, where fewer than one in five professors is female and women are regularly outperformed in the classroom by their male counterparts, graduating students are not immune to the pressure of entering a field dominated at the top by men.
A “FEMINIZED” PROFESSION, BUT NOT AT HARVARD
“Law is becoming a feminized profession, by which I mean the majority of the entrants to the profession are women,” said Wilkins, who described the breakdown in the United States as “50/50,” whereas worldwide “women make up the majority.”
Yet one would never get that sense from the campus of Harvard Law School.
More than six decades since the first women were admitted to the school, female students have never made up 50 percent or more of a class, according to Assistant Dean and Chief Admissions Officer Jessica L. Soban ’02, a former Crimson business editor.
A gender disparity is especially apparent in the most prestigious extracurricular activities, where women succeed in smaller numbers than their male peers.
According to Yvonne L. Smith of the Dean of Students Office, twice as many men as women made it to the semi-final round of the Ames Moot Court competition, a prestigious mock trial held annually by the school, and only nine of the 44 most recently elected editors on the Harvard Law Review have been women.
Valerie Duchesneau, director of student organizations on the Student Representative Board, pointed out that while most journals at the Law School have many women on staff, the Law Review is different.