report May 2015
featured
Cover of HLS Career Study with author names and Harvard Center on the Legal Profession logo.

The current status of women in the legal profession showcases a complex duality: increasing numbers of women each year are entering the position even as the percentage of women in top positions remains far below their representation in the profession. This report offers preliminary results from the Harvard Law School career study tracking the differing paths of HLS men and women graduates.

There is widespread consensus that the legal profession stands at an important inflection point. Traditional models of professional organization, practice, and education are under increasing pressure to adapt to important changes in the environments in which lawyers work. At the same time, these same forces make the profession’s commitment to its traditional ideals of equality and the rule of law more relevant and important than ever.

The current status of women in the legal profession mirrors this complex duality. On the one hand, the number of women entering the profession has increased dramatically in recent decades, and women lawyers can now be found in leadership positions in virtually every major legal institution in the country, including three female justices on the United States Supreme Court. And yet, the percentage of women in these top positions remains far below their representation in the profession, even when adjusted for the fact that women did not begin to enter legal practice in significant numbers until the 1970s. To make matters worse, even women who have achieved important career success appear to be leaving their prestigious positions—and the profession as a whole—in alarming numbers.

This study seeks to deepen the understanding of the career choices made by HLS graduates by providing for the first time systematic empirical information about the careers trajectories of graduates from different points in the school’s history.

It is against this background that we offer this Preliminary Report on The Women and Men of Harvard Law School. The Preliminary Report presents the results of the Harvard Law School Career Study (HLSCS), conducted by the school’s Center on the Legal Profession (CLP). Begun with a generous grant from a visionary group of women alumnae in connection with the 55th celebration of the graduation of the school’s first female students in 1953, the study seeks to deepen the understanding of the career choices made by HLS graduates by providing for the first time systematic empirical information about the careers trajectories of graduates from different points in the school’s history. In this Preliminary Report, we offer a first look at the Study’s findings about the salient similarities and differences between the careers of the school’s female and male graduates.

Before beginning, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of the findings we present. This is a study of the careers of students from a single law school—one that arguably occupies a distinctive place in the marketplace. As a result, the experiences of Harvard Law School graduates will undoubtedly differ in important ways from those of the graduates of other law schools—just as the experiences of future graduates of all law schools are likely to differ from those who have come before. This is particularly true, as we explain below, since the data for this study was collected 2009-2010, when many of the changes that we now see in the profession prompted by the economic downturn that began in 2008 were just beginning to be felt. We return to how these changes may affect some of our findings in the Conclusion.

Nevertheless, we hope that this systematic look at the similarities and differences in the careers of a group of women and men who have admittedly had unique opportunities to build successful and satisfying careers will provide an important reference point for those seeking to ensure that the legal profession achieves greater gender equality for all lawyers in the coming decades. And while the past is never a perfect template for predicting the future, it is also true, as famously observed, that those who fail to study the past are often condemned to repeat it. It is in this spirit that we offer our findings on the careers of HLS graduates across the last six decades.

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Book Talk: The Making of Lawyers’ Careers

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November 1, 2023 5:30pm - 7:00pm ET