Gender and the Legal Profession: The Michigan Alumni Data Set 1967–2000 (GR 08-01)

Executive Summary

In the last three and a half decades, the legal profession has undergone a dramatic transformation in the gender composition of its members. During that time, the number of women applying to law school and entering the profession has gone from a few gallant pioneers to a number roughly equal to that of men. Between 1970 and 2000, the percentage of first-year law students who were female climbed from 8% to 49%. The percentage of women practicing law has risen from 3% in 1970 to 27% in 2000, while the percentage of men practicing law during this period has declined.

In this study, we use the University of Michigan Law School Alumni Data Set (hereafter referred to as the Michigan data set) to undertake an empirical analysis of the impact of this transformation on the legal profession, and the differences that gender makes in the careers and lives of attorneys. With regular survey responses from Michigan alumni from 1967 until the present, the Michigan data set provides a unique opportunity to examine these questions from the days when female attorneys were rare, to the arrival of the first generation of women to achieve a significant presence in the legal profession. This data set is also useful in examining these questions because of its richness in numbers of observations and the breadth of the questions explored in the questionnaire. At least since the 1981 survey of the classes of 1966 and 1976, the Michigan data set contains information on a wide variety of aspects of the alumni’s family lives and careers. The limitation of the Michigan data set is that it covers only University of Michigan alumni, a diverse but relatively elite swath of the legal profession. To act as a check on our analysis and to guide our interpretation of the results, we conducted focus-group discussions of our findings with groups of female and male attorneys and collected similar data on Indiana University law alumni to test our primary results. The insights from these focus groups are reported here, while the results of the study of Indiana alumni are reported elsewhere. In exploring the impact of gender on the legal profession, we examine what the Michigan data set, and our other resources, tell us about each step in the typical lawyer’s legal career from his or her law school experience, to the choice of a first job, to his or her experience in practice, to balancing family life and work, to promotion and partnership, and finally to plans for retirement. Because the Michigan data set contains numerous observations over a period of many years, we also hope to gain some insight into how the impact of gender on these important career stages has changed over the last several decades.

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