Men and Women of the Bar: A Second Look at the Impact of Gender on Legal Careers
104 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2020 Last revised: 15 Jun 2022
Date Written: December 8, 2020
In this study, we undertake an empirical analysis of the continuing progress of women in the legal profession and the differences that gender makes in the lives and careers of attorneys. This study uses the Michigan Law Alumni Data Set surveys from the years 2002-2018 and updates our 2009 study using the Michigan Law Alumni Data Set surveys from the years 1981-2000. As we found in our first study, the entry of women into the legal profession has forever changed both lawyers and the profession. Women have brought to the legal profession a different set of assets and problems than men. As women continue to grow in their representation in the profession, their attributes and their problems have come to represent both what it means to be a lawyer and what are the problems of the legal profession. Although there is tremendous overlap in personal characteristics between the genders, on average men report that they have a greater concern for money and are more aggressive, more confident, better dealmakers, and more skeptical than the women report themselves to be. On the other hand, the women report that they are more concerned with the impact of their work on society and more compassionate, more compulsive, honest, and liberal than the men report themselves to be. These differences in personal characteristics between the genders are very similar to what we found in our first study of the Michigan Alumni Data Set.
These differences in personal characteristics, combined with the traditional gender roles of men as primary breadwinner and women as primary childcare provider, influence the type of practice men and women decide to undertake. We found that men are more likely to enter and remain in the relatively higher paying private practice, while women are more likely to enter and remain in corporate counsel work, public interest work and education. In the survey years 2014-18 fifteen-year years out of law school the men are found disproportionately in private practice (37.5% vs 25.0%) whereas women are disproportionately found in most of the other areas of practice. These findings are also very similar to what we found in our first study except that in recent years (2014-18) a much larger percent of both men (47.9%) and women (56.2%) have left private practice by fifteen years after graduation.
Traditional gender roles and the demands of practicing law also affect the family characteristics of men and women lawyers and how they address the problem of accommodating work and family. The men are more likely to be married, have a spouse who focuses on childcare, and have more children, while the women are more likely to have a spouse with an intense job and enjoy higher spousal income, although these last two differences have disappeared or narrowed for the youngest attorneys in 2014-18. In balancing the demands of work and family, on average men work 8-21% more hours per year and an extra year outside the home by fifteen years after law school, and the women are 10 times more likely to have interrupted their career to do childcare, but all of these differences have declined markedly over the four periods 1981-2018 examined in our studies. In particular, the number of months that women who interrupt their careers to do childcare remain out of the full-time labor market has declined from an average of 57.3 months in 1996-2000 to 21.3 months in 2014-18.
These differences in personal and family characteristics and the choices made in accommodating traditional gender roles have significant effects on the success men and women enjoy in income and promotion in the legal professions. Men are more likely to enter and stay in private practice, and thus to be a partner fifteen years after graduation, but among those lawyers in private practice in the 2014-18 surveys, women are almost as likely to be partners(62.5%) as the men(67.4%). Indeed, women without kids and women with kids who do not interrupt their career to do childcare are more likely than the men to be partners (77.8%) while women who interrupt their careers to do childcare are significantly less likely to be partners (40%). Our logistic regressions on the probability of being a partner confirm that women without kids and women with kids who do not interrupt their career to do childcare are at a significant advantage over the men in becoming partners, while women who interrupt their careers to do childcare are at a significant disadvantage. However, the men enjoy higher average income than the women in all four periods examined in our two studies 1981-2018. In the period 2014-18, for lawyers fifteen years out of law school, the men’s average annual income ($378,850) exceeds the women’s average annual income ($220,683) by $158,167. However, our log linear income regressions suggest that, after correcting for a variety of variables including hours worked, years worked, GPA, region, city size and practice setting, the impact of being female in insignificantly different from zero. The decomposition of our regression analysis suggests that, at least for full time workers, practice setting and differences in personal characteristics are the most important factors in the male/female income gap while the female dummy variable contributes only 2.4% of the estimated gap. There seems to have been little difference based on gender in the impact of the Great Recession on the careers of the men and women lawyers in our sample.
Finally, the differences in personal and family characteristics and the choices made in accommodating traditional gender roles have significant effects on the satisfaction men and women take in their work and family. Although the results are mixed five years out of law school, and the results are not significant for all periods, fifteen years out of law school women tend to dominate the primary satisfaction variables of satisfaction with the family, satisfaction with work/family balance, and satisfaction with their career. Among the examined groups, women with kids are the most satisfied with their family situation whether they interrupt their career to do childcare or not, followed by men with kids who do not interrupt their career. In the earlier examined periods, women exhibit higher satisfaction with work/family balance, in particular women who have kids and interrupt their career to do childcare, but the period 2014-18 shows a close convergence of all the examined groups at roughly the same level of satisfaction on this count. On average, the women are more satisfied with their careers overall than the men fifteen years out of law school, although in 2014-18 the five men in the sample who interrupted their career to do childcare reported the highest average satisfaction with their career, but this result was not statistically significant. Our logistic regression results confirm that fifteen years out of law school the women are significantly happier with their careers than the men even after correcting for a variety of other independent variables including income and job stress. At least in the regression for the 2002-06 period where we have significant results, the examined group who are happiest with their careers are women who have kids and interrupt their career to do childcare.
The entry of women into the legal profession has changed not only who practices law, but the profession itself. Our data suggests that, although male lawyers have largely continued in their role of family breadwinner making choices and sacrifices to make money, women lawyers are making a broader array of choices in accommodating work and family with significant numbers not having kids, having kids, but not interrupting their career, and having kids and interrupting their career for significant periods of time.
All these lawyers have some success in earning financial rewards and satisfaction, but there definitely are tradeoffs to be made. Lawyers who choose private practice and work the most hours and years, disproportionately men, tend to make the most money and enjoy the most opportunities for promotion. Lawyers who chose corporate counsel, government or public interest work and work less hours and years tend to make less money, but have higher satisfaction in their family, work/family balance and career. Our log linear regressions of the determinants of income confirm that the impact of gender on income is insignificantly different from zero except that women who have kids but do not interrupt their careers actually make more money than other lawyers after correcting for variables such as type of practice, years of experience and hours worked. Our logistic regression on which women choose to have children and interrupt their career shows that a woman is more likely to make this choice if she is Hispanic, has more kids, is from the West Coast and is compulsive about work, and less likely to make this choice if she is older, Black, aggressive and concerned about money.
There is some evidence of accommodation of women’s characteristics and interests in the data. The quintessential male characteristic of “aggression” seems to have become less self-identified and perhaps less desirable among both women and men. The women are having more children, on average (1.56), than in years past (1.41 to 1.54), although still not as many as the men (1.84). The percent of women who take time away from their career to do childcare remains high, at about a third of the sample, but it has dropped from the period 2002-2006 (42.4%) to 2014-18 (33.2%). Women report receiving more mentoring than the men and this result is significant for lawyers five years out of law school in 2002-06 (69.7% vs 61.0%) The women who enter and remain in private practice are more likely to make partner (77.8%) than men (67.4%), although not the women who interrupt their career to do childcare (40%). Our logistic regression on the probability of being a partner confirms the significance of women’s general advantage in making partner, and the disadvantage of women who interrupt their career to do childcare in this regard. Although men’s average incomes remain very high relative to women’s fifteen years out of law school, our log linear regression results on the determinants of income suggest that, after correcting for other explanatory variables, the difference attributable to gender is not statistically significant except that women who have kids and do not interrupt their career to do childcare actually make more money than the men. Finally, as previously discussed the women tend to dominate the satisfaction variables with women who interrupt their careers to do childcare doing particularly well.
There are also signs that there needs to be room for further accommodation of choice in the legal profession. The average number of months that women who interrupt their career to do childcare take away from their paid work has dropped precipitously from 1996-2000 (57.6 months) to 2014-18 (21.3 months). The percent of women five years out of law school who report “family” as their reason for planning to leave their job is still high (20.9%)relative to the men (12.1%), although the difference has dropped considerably between 2002-06 (-20.3%) and 2014-18 (-8.8%). Our regression analyses show that women who interrupt their careers to undertake childcare make significantly less money and are significantly less likely to be a partner even after correcting for a variety of other important variables. Although some may voluntarily choose a non-equity position to accommodate family and reap satisfaction in the tradeoff, it is beyond the scope of our study to determine whether these decisions are always voluntary or equitable.
Finally, the men in our sample only have one real choice in attracting a mate and childrearing, that of being the - often overworked - primary breadwinner. Indeed, our log linear regression results with respect to annual income show that men who interrupt their careers to do childcare suffer a significant decline in income not suffered by the women or other men. This result is consistent with our results from our first study. Although men’s incomes remain high relative to the women, their satisfaction with the family has declined steadily over the examined periods from 1981-91 to 2014-18 while women’s satisfaction with the family has remained higher and roughly constant. This decline in men’s satisfaction in the family is largely driven by men who do not have kids or who have kids and interrupt their career to do childcare, although men who have kids and do not interrupt their career have also suffered a decline. It seems that the non-traditional roles for men are becoming even less attractive.
Keywords: Gender, Legal Profession, Income, Partnership, Job Satisfaction, Work/Family Balance, Great Recession
JEL Classification: J16, J7, K00, J31, J44, J13, M14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation