The Declining Percentage of Women Going to Law School: An Undergraduate Woman’s Perspective on a Disturbing Phenomenon (Part One: The Decline in Women’s Applications to Law School)


Welcome, Devon Lawrence.

    –Kyle Pasewark

I am very pleased to introduce Devon Lawrence, an undergraduate at The University of Chicago and an intern at Advise-In Solutions.  Soon after Devon accepted the internship, the legal press reported the news that the percentage of women attending elite law schools had declined.  Somehow, that seemed providential; Devon set about the tasks of investigating the data more deeply, and also reflecting on what it might mean for her, a woman considering her career options, including law school.

What she found—and what she thinks of what she found—will be presented in two blog posts.  While my lawyerly caution inclines me to a Sony DVD-like disclaimer that the opinions of guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Advise-In Solutions management, in this case, I pretty much agree with everything Devon says and sincerely appreciate the very hard high-quality work she put in to produce these posts. 

It goes without saying that the topic is one of tremendous importance.  The decline in the percentage of women attending law school is reversing a late 20th-century trend toward gender parity in law school (the practice of law is a somewhat different matter).  While increasing disparity does not (necessarily) reflect declining career opportunities for women (to know that, you’d have to show that law is the best option for the women who are no longer attending law school), I think it’s axiomatic that, if it continues, it’s bad news for the future of the legal profession.  If the legal profession can’t attract women like Devon or allow them to maximize their law school and legal practice opportunities, that’s its loss.

Here is the first of Devon’s posts on the topic of women, law school and the law.  I think you’ll find both enlightening.


I am a college undergraduate who is seriously considering law school and a career in the law; I am also a woman.  So when Kyle asked me to investigate more deeply the data he mentions in his introduction above, I was excited, and a little apprehensive about what I might find. 

To begin with some basic data, a recent article at Poets and Quants showcased findings from Catalyst: there is an increasing disparity between the percentages of men to women enrolling in top law schools (by US News rank).  In fact, as data from the ABA shows, this is a trend at law schools in general, not just the “elite.”  In 2000, enrollment was more or less equal at 21,499 women to 22,019 men.  However, by 2009, the gap had widened considerably with enrollment at 24,305 women to 27,341 men.  Although the overall number of women enrolling did increase in the past decade, percentage growth for male enrollment is almost twice that of female enrollment (13.05% to 24.17%) and total female enrollment, as a percentage, has fallen from 49.4% in 2000 to 47.2% in 2009.

The declining percentage of women enrolling in law school is the consequence of two other trends combined—a decline in women’s application rates and a decline in their admission rates.  Published data from the Law School Admission Council shows both a declining percentage of law school applications from women and an even sharper decline in admission rates.  It should be noted that 2010-11 application rates somewhat reversed this trend; data presented by LSAC at the NAPLA conference on June 10 indicates that in the last year—in which law school applications dropped by over 10%—applications from men declined 12.1%; from women, 9.7%.  However, the percentage of male applicants remained higher than any year since 2000, except for last year.

This data (especially the admission rate) is disconcerting to me.  Even more disconcerting are the possible explanations for this increasing gender disparity.  In this post, I’ll talk about the declining application rate for women; in the next, the especially troubling sharper decline in admission rates. 

The first point at which women lag behind men is in applying to law school.   According to the LSAC, in 2000 more women than men applied to law school by a margin of 360.   In the most recent round of applications reported on LSAC’s website (leaving out of account the data presented at NAPLA), men outnumbered women by 4,380.  It seems to me that applications can be more or less construed as the desire to enter law or a law-related profession combined with the conviction that the significant investment that is law school will be paid off and worth it in the future.   So, how could this shift have happened? 

Perhaps the answer to the disparity in applications is plain and simple: women do not want to work in law as much as men do.  I find this a little difficult to believe.  However, I am a college-aged woman with future aspirations in law, so perhaps that makes me stubborn.  It is incontrovertible that on the whole, women practicing law are not the equals of men with regard to money and power.  According to the Catalyst study, as of 2009 only 19.2% of partners at law firms were women and 99% of firms reported that their highest paid lawyer was a man.  To add to that, the ABA reported in 2011 that on average, women earn about $500 less/week than men.  That adds up to $26,000/year, certainly not a sum to be scoffed at.  Money isn’t everything, and this wouldn’t stop me from doing what I wanted.  However, as I think about making a living after law school, the lower average income among women is a bit of a flashing yellow light.  My future law school decision may have to be a little more careful that than of an “average” man considering the same career decision. 

Maybe the widespread perception that women are more family-oriented than men is true.  But I think that this perception may be partly a side-effect of the inequality in monetary return and influence.   The desire of parents (dads too!) to stay at home and take care of their children is understandable.  However, if the family with a new baby is suddenly going to be a single-source income household, then the parent who makes the most money will probably be the one to continue working.   Ergo, the stay-at-home mom is much more common than the stay-at-home dad.

Whatever the cause, it’s clear that lawyers who are mothers leave the practice of law at a high rate.  A recent Washington Post article discussed a national survey that showed that 25% of lawyers who are mothers had left the workplace 15 years after graduating.  This is striking in comparison to mothers with medical degrees, in which only 6% had left the workplace in the same amount of time.  Essentially, the reason given for this difference is that Dr. Mom is allowed more flexible hours and part-time work than Mom, Esq.

Coming back to the issue of applications–it seems as if a mix of perceptions and realities deter women from having the same level of conviction and desire to go to law school.  Law is perceived as an intense, stressful, and time-consuming profession.  Then again, so is medicine and medical schools are relatively equal gender-wise.  The perception of law for women may be a short career full of the realities of salary and influence inequality before giving up their job to take care of their children while their more “successful” husbands continue to work.

My guess is that the disparity in applications might have to do with women who would have gone to law school deciding that they’d rather make do with just a college degree or go into a career with a little more leeway.  Perhaps more women are skeptical that the increasingly expensive investment in law school is worth it. 

These concerns aren’t universal, of course.  I spoke to the pre-law advisor at my college, The University of Chicago, about my concerns and my findings.  She told me that from the UofC, there has been no change in the level of interest or applications from women (equal to or even slightly ahead of men) and that in her experience, very few women with whom she talks are concerned about the aforementioned issues, such as flexible work schedules.  Maybe women who attend colleges such as UofC have ambitions that are more impervious to the drawbacks of law school and law.  I’m not sure—but speaking for myself, I’ll consider my decision about whether to go to law school and pursue a legal career differently in light of these issues.

Even if I (and other women) decide to apply to law school, there’s still the even more troubling data that I’ll talk about in my next post—the admission of women to law school has declined even more sharply than their application rate.

  –Devon Lawrence

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on June 22, 2011.

One Response to “The Declining Percentage of Women Going to Law School: An Undergraduate Woman’s Perspective on a Disturbing Phenomenon (Part One: The Decline in Women’s Applications to Law School)”

  1. […] my last post, I discussed one reason why, over the last decade, the percentage of women in law school has […]

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