Universities Are Not Preparing Women Lawyers for the Misogyny They’ll Face in the Workplace

The male-dominated field of law—rife with sexual harassment, systemic sexism and problem drinking—still has years to go before women can compete and excel in U.S. courtrooms and boardrooms.

Female lawyers—especially women of color—are more likely than their male counterparts to be mistaken for non-lawyers, to be interrupted, to do more office housework, and to have less access to prime job assignments. (Maskot / Getty Images)

I first decided I wanted to attend law school when I was a young idealistic sophomore in high school, because I excelled in Lincoln-Douglas style debate and in arguing with my poor father. Understanding that my undergraduate degree would not necessarily be dispositive towards pursuing a J.D., I selected a college major that would be personally empowering and prepare me for my career in law.  

At the time, it was uncommon for women’s studies to be offered as a degree. But I was fortunate to attend a university where a student could design her own major, so long as it was developed, presented and approved by faculty. I set out to secure the assistance of a supervising professor to curate a degree in women’s studies, with a specialty in law.

Logically, I first approached my professor in political science—who was kind enough to advise me I would be better suited to pick a different career. Misogyny was nothing new in my life experience or in academia, so I continued on with my search. 

Young women are not empowered with a skillset to identify, attack and resolve the types of legal issues that continue to challenge them today. 

Ultimately, I located the perfect professor that I would later come to describe as a radical feminist in academia. She proved to be an amazing mentor, nourished my young mind and assisted me in curating and overseeing a curriculum in women’s studies with an emphasis on law, which was ultimately approved by the faculty.

My studies encompassed bodies of work from feminists that specialized in the legal field, both in academia and in practice. I read of their experiences: long hours, the challenges facing women in pursuing a partner track, the difficulty in having a family and a successful competitive career with the ability to do both, and the historical challenges presented to women in becoming attorneys. 

After completing my studies, I was informed—and believed—that I was prepared to embark upon a successful career in the legal field.

What was not encompassed within my course studies, despite intentional efforts to be overreaching, was:

  • the large number of women practicing law that say they have been sexually harassed at work;
  • the fact that some men will utilize sexual innuendos and benign compliments to reduce women from serving as threatening opponents;
  • the way that law firms use women as tools for marketing, since studies show many clients seek women-owned firms;
  • the prevalence of “problem drinking” in the field of law, and the ways some law firms encourage risky drinking;
  • the role inequity in domestic labor and intimate relationships continues to play in the ability of women to compete in a field that measures success by billable hours; and
  • possibly the most important: that the playing field still has years of advancement to be near level for women to successfully compete and excel in the male-dominated field of law.

These days, women lawyers—especially women of color—are more likely than their male counterparts to be interrupted; to be mistaken for janitors, administrative staff, or court personnel (rather than lawyers themselves); to do more office housework, like scheduling meetings, planning parties and cleaning up; and to have less access to prime job assignments, according to a 2018 study from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession.

During my practice, I have been disappointed by the fact that this part of the legal practice is not talked about enough. And—despite my attempts to narrowly tailor a degree that would prepare me for my career in law—academic legal practitioners seem to still be attenuated from the realty. Consequently, young women are not empowered with a skillset to identify, attack and resolve these types of gender-based legal and workplace issues that continue to challenge them today. 

My intent in writing this is not to dissuade nor discourage young women from entering the legal field, as we desperately need them. Rather, I hope to invite young women interested in a legal career to:

  • reach out to practicing female attorneys and find a mentor,
  • become familiar with the challenging issues that continually face women in the practice coupled with ongoing misogyny, and
  • empower themselves, with the skillset to identify and attack said issues and challenges at the onset.

After over 20 years of practice, I was fortunate enough to find a law firm that celebrates femininity and diversity. My firm supports its female partners and has assisted me in facing these types of challenges as they arise. It is fundamental for aspiring young attorneys to secure an employer that celebrates and supports diversity in all its forms, and will truly serve as a resource and a support mechanism for women to excel in their legal practice. 

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Courtney B. Lockhart obtained a B.A. in women’s studies from Ft. Lewis College, a J.D. from Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and is employed as a senior associate with Bremer Whyte Brown & O’Meara. She is admitted to practice in California state courts as well as federal district courts in the Central District of California. Lockhart is a member of numerous professional organizations including the Beverly Hills Bar Association, the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the American Bar Association. As an accomplished lawyer with over 20 years of experience, Lockhart has successfully represented Fortune 200, medium and small companies, insurance companies, and private individuals, through all aspects of litigation and dispute resolution.