The percentage of female 1Ls rose fairly steadily from 1967 (when it was just 4.9%) through 2001, when it hit 49.4%. But after 2002, the percentage started to decline. In fall 2010, the peak year for 1L enrollment, women constituted just 46.1% of the incoming class. That sounds like a marginal decline until you consider this fact: In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, women earned 57.2% of all bachelor's degrees. If women constitute 57.2% of all college graduates, why do they make up just 46.1% of entering law students?
It's not because women lack the intelligence, interest, or drive to attend graduate school. Women earn many more master's degrees than men do: The same census report from 2009 shows that women received 60.4% of the MA's awarded that year. Women even outnumbered men on the PhD platform, although the sexes were more evenly divided there with women earning 52.2% of those degrees.
So why don't more women come to law school? Why aren't our classes 55-60% women instead of 46%? Men score somewhat higher than women on the LSAT, but women have higher college grades. The sheer preponderance of women graduating from college should give them an advantage--if they wanted to go to law school.
The fact is that women's interest in law school has fallen. The percentage of women law students closely tracks the percentage of women law school applicants. Fewer women than men apply to law school today. And female applications, notably, fell off when law school tuition began to dramatically exceed expected salaries. Are women simply more price sensitive than men about legal education? There are good reasons that might be the case:
- Women's starting salaries are lower. When entry-level salaries crested in 2009, women reported a median salary of $68,000 while men reported one of $75,000. Note that for purposes of this comparison, it doesn't matter why that gap exists. Even if women prefer public interest jobs while men prefer private practice ones (and there is evidence of this pattern), that still reduces the salaries that women can expect from a law degree. [I'll add the standard caveat that reported salaries are considerably higher than unreported ones. But that fact is unlikely to negate the gender difference; the same percentages of men and women report their salaries.]
- Women are more likely to leave the full-time workplace, at least for a period of time. The national study After the JD II tracked a group of law graduates first admitted to the bar in 2000. Seven years later, only 76% of the women were working full-time; 14% were employed part-time; and 10% were unemployed. In contrast, 96% of the men were working full-time; 2% were working part-time; and 1% were unemployed. [Important note: These employment figures probably skew high for both sexes, because of selection bias among those who responded to the survey. But that bias probably had little impact on the gender difference.]
- Even when women remain in full-time positions, the salary gap between them and men grows over time. Seven years after bar admission, the full-time women workers responding to After the JD II enjoyed a median salary of $89,000; the men reported one of $105,000. [Again, these medians undoubtedly skew high--for much the same reason that salaries reported to NALP skew high. But the bias probably has little effect on the gender gap.]
- Probably because of these differences, women are slower than men to pay down their law school debt. The men and women responding to the After the JD study reported identical median debt levels in 2000 ($70,000). By 2007, the median remaining debt for men was $50,000 while for women it was $54,000.
Things may get worse from here. The brutal employment market suggests that law graduates would be very unwise to step out of that market. Could a woman today take five years out of the workplace to raise young children, then return to a secure legal job? That was once possible, but the odds of doing that today seem vanishingly small. Could a woman even work part-time for a few years? Or find a job that has regular, predictable hours?
Conversely, what about a single mother who wants to provide securely for her children? Can that woman count on steady legal employment in today's market? If she's laid off from a legal job, will she be able to find other work to support herself and her children? If it takes 20 years to discharge her law school debt, and if she applies at least 10% of her discretionary income to that debt each year, will she be able to save for her children's college educations?
The same questions apply to men. There are some men who want to limit their work hours or leave the workplace temporarily to care for their children. There certainly are men who worry about supporting those children, as well as about saving money for their children's education. Achieving those ambitions through law school is much more uncertain today than it was 25 or 30 years ago. If you care about having and cherishing children, does it make sense to incur debt that will take at least 20 years to discharge, while embarking on a career that demands strenuous hours and imposes increasing risks of periodic unemployment?
As legal educators, we can't eliminate all of these risks. But we should think hard about why women have shown a declining interest in law school: They may be telling us that the product is not worth the price for them. And we should worry that the same price, combined with the saturated legal market, will also turn away men who want to raise children with their own dreams of higher education.