Women and Law Review: A Stepping Stone to Leadership?

By Maura Reilly

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This past year, Cornell University Law Review became the first in the country to elect an all-female executive board. This historic executive board comes a century after May Conlon Alger, Cornell Law School class of 1920, was elected the first woman editor-in-chief of a Law Review. While Cornell may be leading the pack, they are by no means alone, in the 2019–2020 academic year, the number of women leading Law Reviews has grown exponentially. All of the Law Reviews in the Top 16 U.S. law schools have women editors-in-chief, and of the Top 50 law schools, women hold 38 of the editor-in-chief positions, roughly 76 percent.

This number is a stark change and welcome improvement from findings in the 2012 Ms. JD report on the Top 50 law schools and the gender make-up of their Law Reviews. In the 2011–2012 academic year women received 47.3 percent of the law degrees, made up 42.45 percent of Law Review members, but only held 28.6 percent of the editor-in-chief positions. The uptick in women leaders of Law Review is essential due to the import placed on Law Reviews when it comes to resumes and job prospects following law school.

Unfortunately, while law schools and reviews are reaching gender parity, the same cannot be said of the field of law overall. The number of men and women starting out in the profession are roughly even, in 2018, women held 48 percent of Summer Associate positions, and 45 percent of First-year Associate positions; but the top levels of leadership lack gender parity. The American Bar Association’s report on women in law found women only made up 22 percent of partners and 19 percent of equity partners. Similarly, women remain severely underrepresented in the Judiciary, making up 59 of the 160 active judges on the Circuit Court of Appeals (36.8 percent), 194 of the 570 active Federal District Court Judges (34 percent), and three of the nine Supreme Court Justices (33 percent). Gender parity is not the only problem facing the judiciary, judicial appointments remain largely white and male, as of August 2019, 80 percent of all sitting judges on the federal bench were white, and 73 percent were male.

Despite common misconceptions, the legal profession and judiciary do not have a pipeline problem, women enter the field at the same rates as men but leave at higher rates because of gendered roadblocks including lack of comprehensive maternity/family leave policies and the gender pay gap. To increase the number of women leaders in the industry, the field can look to the Top 16 Law Reviews, which have made concerted efforts in the past years to self-reflect and increase their efforts to encourage women and other underrepresented students to run for leadership positions.

Correcting the lack of women in the legal profession requires sustained and committed effort to correct the inherent gender biases and gendered road-blocks which prevent women from reaching the top levels of leadership. And the increasing number of women leading Law Reviews is an important step, Eduardo M. Peñalver, Dean of the Cornell Law School, said on the topic, “the editorial boards of these publications are the gatekeepers of coveted intellectual real estate that makes or breaks the careers of young legal scholars.”

When the gatekeepers are diverse, in terms of religion, ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background, the publications and works published become more diverse, and when the gatekeepers remain largely white and male, so too does the publication and the opinions published. Editorial positions on law reviews are an important stepping stone on the path to leadership in the legal field, all four of the women Supreme Court Justices served as editors on their Law Reviews. Additionally, the publications remain an important avenue for normalizing women in leadership at an early stage in the field; but, for sustained gender parity the culture of the field must change to allow women and people of color the opportunities readily given to men.

Maura is a RepresentWomen Research Fellow from the Washington, D.C. area. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland this past spring with an honors degree in Social Anthropology.

Advocates for institutional reforms to advance women's representation & leadership in elected & appointed office in the US www.representwomen.org

Advocates for institutional reforms to advance women's representation & leadership in elected & appointed office in the US www.representwomen.org