Knowledge Center

Women in Law: Making the Case

This study is the first ever to feature a geographically representative sample of women and men law graduates spanning all legal sectors to take a comprehensive look at their career paths, advancement, and work/life balance.

Impetus: In 2001, the number of women in law schools outpaced that of men. For the past three decades, many of the United States’ most talented women chose career paths in law. Yet in 2000, women represented 15.6 percent of law partners nationwide (NALP, 2000) and 13.7 percent of General Counsels of Fortune 500 companies (Catalyst, 2000). Catalyst embarked on this study to understand why so few women are in leadership positions in the legal profession and what legal employers can do to capitalize on the talents of women lawyers.


  • Surveys received from 1,439 graduates from the classes of 1970-1999 of five leading law schools (Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, Michigan, and Yale). Response rate: 24 percent.

  • Interviews conducted with 21 lawyers representing a cross-section of geography, age, work setting, race/ethnicity, and family situations.

  • Secondary research and interviews conducted to identify 13 examples of programs and initiatives to recruit, advance, and retain women in the legal profession.

Findings: Women intend to stay at their current employers three fewer years than men, while younger women and women of color intend to leave even sooner. Sixty-two percent of white women are satisfied with their current employers compared to 68 percent of men, while only 46 percent of women of color are satisfied. Sixty-seven percent of women, compared to 49 percent of men, cite women's commitment to personal and family responsibility as a barrier to advancement. Legal employers who provide women with the following options will have a better chance of attracting and retaining them: advancement opportunities, availability of mentors, professional development opportunities, and control over their work.

Sponsors: Columbia Law School, with a special grant from The New York Community Trust—Wallace Reader’s Digest Special Projects Fund, Harvard Law School, University of California-Berkeley (Boalt Hall) Law School, University of Michigan Law School, and Yale Law School