Even Harvard Law School Lawyers Face Gender Based Obstacles and Varied Career Trajectories

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Summary: A recent report released by Harvard Law School shows that its graduates continue to face various obstacles in their careers.

Even Harvard Law School Lawyers Face Gender Based Obstacles and Varied Career Trajectories

It's been over fifty years since Harvard Law School admitted female students and the school just issued a report examining how HLS's female graduates are faring in the workplace. The report confirms that a fancy law degree is no free pass when it comes to gender related obstacles in the legal profession.

The report surveyed female and male HLS alums from the classes of 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2000.Though primarily focused on gender disparities, the report also provides interesting insight into the career trajectories of HLS alums of both genders. Most striking, the study found that over one-fourth (28%) of graduates surveyed are no longer practicing law at all.

Gender Issues

The 70-page report concludes: "Even women who start their careers with the benefit of an educational credential traditionally thought to be an important hedge against adversity nevertheless continue to encounter greater obstacles than their male classmates-particularly when they attempt to integrate family obligations with professional goals."

One area of disparity is in full-time versus part-time work. For the class of 2000, for example, 98.9% of men and 97.7% of women worked full-time in their first post-graduation job. But ten years later, zero percent of the men worked part-time as compared to 13% of women. Of the women, 12% had left the paid labor force altogether.

The disparity (and inequity) doesn't stop there. Among full-time law firm employees, women reported working an average of four hours a week more than men. Meanwhile, fewer women reported holding top management positions. Moreover, although starting salaries were generally equal (except for the 2000 class, in which men came in at $115,000 and women $85,000), the economic disparity between the genders increased over time, perhaps because more men than women migrated to high-paying non-law jobs in businesses like investment banks and hedge funds.

As far as the lawyers' personal lives go, the women were less likely to be married than men, and 93.6% of male law firm partners were married as compared with 66.4% of female partners. When it came to having children, women more than men reported adverse consequences such as having to leave a job, experiencing a delay in promotion, having their commitment to work questioned and even losing office space.

Mobility and Flexibility

Beyond "gender issues," the Harvard report provides other insights into today's legal professionals. The trend appears to be towards greater mobility within law sectors and among professions generally. Most HLS graduates surveyed began their careers at law firms, but many transitioned to public sector jobs or to business sector jobs, either working in a non-legal capacity or as in-house counsel. Moreover, the 1975 graduates had on average 3.2 employers over a 40-year career, while the 2000 graduates already had an average of 2.7 employers during their much shorter 10-year careers.(Similarly, an American Bar Foundation study that looked at young lawyers across the country from all different law schools found that in a 12-year career many attorneys already had as many as four different jobs.)

As far as why so many HLS lawyers left the law, the reasons range from a failure to find the work interesting to being dissatisfied with the work/life balance to just being pulled in another direction. But even those HLS grads who followed other paths expressed appreciation for their education. Over 80% reported they would still obtain a law degree if they had to do it over again.


Female lawyers continue to face gender and "work/life" challenges, regardless where they went to law school. And just as more women are moving out of law or into alternative law tracks than men, today's lawyers of both genders appear to be moving around more. Whatever the impetus, the trend is toward alternatives, mobility and flexibility.

And if the HLS lawyers are any indication, one very bright light at the end of the tunnel is lawyers continue to value their law degree, however they use it, and whatever compromises they make in doing so.

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