It was a very rare female law graduate who found employment as an attorney 30 years ago when Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor graduated from law school. They did not. Both placed at the top of their classes at highly regarded law schools -- Judge Ginsburg at Columbia and Justice O'Connor at Stanford -- but neither was offered work as a practicing attorney.
A great deal has changed since then. The historic moment when the two women appear among the robed justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will be a tribute to their intelligence, perseverance and hard work -- and also to the battles waged and won by a handful of female lawyers, law students and sympathetic male colleagues.
A look back is instructive in assessing how far women lawyers have come and what's in store for them.
The old stereotypes that branded women as too pure and emotional for the adversarial process, or unable to understand the business world, were used to justify quotas that restricted women even after law schools and the profession began grudgingly admitting them in any numbers in the late 1960s. It was believed that women would abandon their law careers as soon as they married and had children. Female students were limited to between 3 percent and 10 percent of law school classes; often they were excluded from job interviews on campus.
Both the law schools and the profession began to open their doors wide to entering women in the 1970s. This coincided with the expanding market for legal services over the next decade and a half. Since women constituted a larger part of the talent pool, they found few problems getting jobs. They exploded myths about their presumed incompetence by showing excellent aptitude in such macho legal spheres as criminal law, mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance, and demonstrating skills advocacy work as well. Women are now 42 percent of the legal student population and 20 percent of all lawyers.
In spite of the strides they have made, however, women make up only 11 percent of the partners in the top law firms. The percentage who have become chief corporate counsels is far lower than that.
Further, the economic crunch threatens to unravel some of women's gains. Firms have begun to lay off lawyers, and there is growing pressure for lawyers to put in much longer hours to get and keep new business. Women are facing crueler choices in their often conflicting commitments to work and family. Although firms have been more flexible about employees' family responsibilities in prosperous times, they are tightening up today.
Beyond this, traditional prejudices regarding women's proper roles still create problems for them. No male nominee for public office had to face the kind of scrutiny about his child-care provisions that Zoe Baird or Kimba Wood did. Surveys conducted by state task forces of the court systems in half the states of the nation have shown that female lawyers systematically face disrespectful and demeaning behavior by court officers and judges. Yet, happily, these same surveys show some decrease in overt discrimination, such as outright harassment.
Subtle discrimination (some of it exhibited unconsciously) is more common. Female lawyers report that in the evaluation process for promotion, concern is often expressed as to whether a woman has the "presence" to impress if she is of medium height and exhibits a quiet demeanor. Some female attorneys have reported that they often are not given access to high-profile, challenging work.
Leaders in a number of law firms and corporations and, of course, in the government, have made successful attempts to provide hospitable environments for women. Yet other gatekeepers feel that things will change in time without intervention, and still others prefer that things would go back to the good old days when law was a boys' club.
But there is no going back, in spite of the fact that hard times tend to revive old stereotypes and divert attention from provision of family-friendly innovations, such as child-care assistance and flexible work schedules. Women in the legal community are alert and concerned about such developments; they are likely to blow the whistle on sexist practices. Men with a long view acknowledge that it would be self-defeating to turn away women's talent.
Women's move toward equality in the legal profession may be seriously slowed in this uncertain economic period. But, considering the impressive contributions women lawyers have made in every aspect of the field, failure to continue to move forward would be a step backward for the nation.
Cynthia Fuchs Epstein is professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of "Women in Law."