Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed August 28, 1996
Contact: Richard Morin

A new study shows a `glass ceiling' for female corporate lawyers

A new study of the representation of female lawyers in 100 corporate legal departments shows a dramatic under-representation of women. Despite increased numbers of women entering the legal profession, forty-three percent of those companies did not have a single female attorney on staff.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Despite substantial increases in the number of female lawyers in the 1980s and a trend among corporations toward relying on in-house legal counsel, the number of female lawyers in corporate legal departments is remarkably low, according to a new study presented at the American Sociological Association meeting Aug. 17.

An analysis of pilot data on the legal departments of 100 companies operating in finance, professional services, insurance and real estate, high technology, and general manufacturing shows that 43 percent of those companies did not have a female attorney on staff. (Sampled corporate legal departments ranged in size from one to 201 attorneys.)

"I was shocked," said Mary Fennell, professor of sociology at Brown University, who conducted the study with sociologist Kevin Leicht of the University of Iowa. "What we have found is that women have increased from zero to barely more than that. It seems that women are still tokens in the corporate legal setting, something I thought we had gone beyond."

Women are most likely to be found in the legal departments of professional service companies and least likely in the legal departments of insurance companies. Women are also more likely to be present in legal departments with men who are graduates of elite law schools. But even in settings where they are most likely to be found, women comprise only a small fraction of in-house attorneys, demonstrating, the authors say, that different mechanisms govern the initial inclusion of women and the increased representation of women.

The study also showed that women are most likely to be found in the legal departments of companies that have women on their top management team. (Two percent of the companies in the study had women in top management positions.)

"The professional service sector is relatively new and less established, which probably contributes to the lack of established hiring routines that prevent women's entry into corporate legal departments," the study says. "Women corporate managers are able to apply normative and coercive pressure to open legal departments to women." In other words, women in top management can make a difference for women in professional positions.

Women are not, however, more likely to be found in the legal departments of companies that have women on their board of directors. (Thirty-three percent of the companies in the study had women on their board of directors.) "It may be that companies with women on their boards of directors feel they have done their affirmative action," Fennell said.

The authors say the low number of female lawyers working for in-house legal departments is surprising. Since in-house lawyers tend to work more regular hours and do not face the same time-intensive demands of private practice (attracting new clients, for example), Fennell said she expected the effects of "mommy track" conflicts to be eliminated. But "these results point to the large effects of organizational and labor market inertia and the ability of relatively large and powerful corporations to resist larger institutional pressures in specialized labor markets," the study says.

Fennell and Leicht will now turn their efforts toward examining 1,300 companies with in-house legal departments and career data on more than 2,400 in-house lawyers. They would like to be able to follow complete cohorts of graduating female lawyers to document the employment setting where they initially begin their careers. "We know that they aren't going into traditional legal firms," said Fennell. "And it seems from these results that they are not going into in-house legal departments. So where are they going? It is my guess that they are going to non-profits and government agencies."