Law and Order: SVU. How To Get Away With Murder. Legally Blonde.
These television shows and movies are all (very) different and stray a bit from the real world, but they do have one thing in common: they show the female attorney as a strong and confident woman. And they show more than one of them.
In reality, that image of any female attorney is a rare one. In Law360’s latest “Glass Ceiling Report,” only 36 percent of all attorneys are women, and just over 23 percent of law firm partners are female. The representation just isn’t there — so we set out to discover why that is.
According to Renee Galente, president of the the California Women Lawyers, the issue isn’t a lack of women. “The classes in California are reaching 50-50,” Galente says of the genders pursuing law degrees. “The issue is not entering the profession. The issue is advancement in the profession.” Today, there are over 70,000 female lawyers in California, and Galente believes women are making progress — just slowly.
Part of the problem, it seems, is there are still plenty of challenges being a woman in the legal field. Like any field with gender disparity, the problem tends to repeat itself — those in power stay in power, thanks to the ‘boys club’ mentality.
“Being in the male-dominated securities and financial services, many of my male counterparts, often opposing counsel, underestimate my experience,” Jonah Toleno tells HER magazine. Toleno is a partner with Shustak Reynolds & Partners, P.C., based in San Diego. “I’ve been talked down to, even treated inappropriately, but over the years I have learned to stand on principle and assert myself on behalf of my clients,” she says. “If anything, the challenges have made me keep wanting to use my skills to help others more than ever.”
Renee DeGolier, a Los Angeles County attorney for nearly 10 years, says men held the leadership roles in most of the firms she has worked for. “While times have definitely changed in law firms… it is unmistakable that the legal field continues to be a male dominated profession. Depending on what man (or men) fill those roles, it can have a significant impact on the office dynamic towards women,” she explains.
Thankfully, some organizations are taking strides to solve this expansive issue.
To move toward gender equity, California Women Lawyers offers programs such as “Elect to Run,” which helps educate and encourage women to run for public office. It has a separate program called “So You Want to be a Judge,” which aims to increase the number of women and diverse candidates who seek to obtain appointment to the bench. “[We] give a hand up, mentor, and help women be successful,” Galente explains.
And there are some areas of law that are seeing more progress than others. In Julia Morgan’s field of workers compensation insurance defense, she explains that she’s had a completely different experience. “I was initially surprised by how many women there were in the industry, both attorneys and judges. We are everywhere!” Morgan says. Morgan started practicing law in 2014 in Long beach, California, and says she is “consistently working alongside other female attorneys and honestly never feel outnumbered or that I am trying to compete with a ‘boys club’ atmosphere.”
And if you’re a women today considering to go into the field of law?
“There is room in this industry for all personality types and viewpoints,” Morgan adds encouragingly, but other lawyers warn caution.
“Choose to be a lawyer because it is your calling, and not because someone told you to go to law school,” says DeGolier. “Second, be confident and be strong. Don’t let those who attempt to intimidate you be successful in their pursuits.”
Toleno also reminds others to keep in mind the cost of law school. “Make sure it is the right investment. Try to speak to as many lawyers as you can to learn about different specialties. Most of all, if you do go into law, take care of yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually,” she says. “I encourage all women to consider this path because I’ve found great fulfillment, but consider it carefully — because it’s not easy.”