Women Are Gaining Ground… But For the Right Reasons?

Editors’ note: Today, we publish Part II of New York-based litigation associate and MoFo Women’s Strategy Committee member Katie Viggiani’s interview with the esteemed N.Y.U. Law School Professor Melissa Murray. Here Professor Murray addresses women in the legal profession.

In addition to teaching courses at NYU Law School on subjects including constitutional law, and reproductive rights and justice, Melissa is faculty director of the school’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network, an organization working with both law students and law firms to explore how best to help future generations of women lawyers thrive and lead.

She reacted to each of the statistics concerning the advancement of women in the legal profession cited by her interviewer with genuine excitement tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism.

For instance, Katie brought up the three female justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court—more than there have been at any other time in history. “But,” Katie added, “there have only been four out of 114 ever.”

“Three female justices. That’s great. That’s huge,” Melissa responded. “But only 30% of the federal judiciary is composed of women. It’s even bleaker at the state level, where many of the judges are elected.”

When Katie brought up the unprecedented fact that the editors-in-chief of every one of the top 16 law schools are currently women, Melissa responded, “That’s not just parity. That’s a supermajority. That’s really something to celebrate.” But she also recounted her experience at a conference in Washington, D.C. inspired by the woman-editor trend.

“At the conference we discussed what has made [the fact that all of the top law school’s journals’ editors are women] possible,” Melissa said. ““Of course it’s evidence of the moxie and persistence of these women,” she said. “But some of the issues these women were raising were interesting. The work of being the editor-in-chief of a law review seemed to have changed substantially. They are now responsible for creating a warm environment and cultivating an atmosphere where people could work effectively and efficiently together. That is really different from how the editor-in-chief role was imagined when I was in law school.”

Melissa had a similar reaction when Katie brought up the fact that, this year, 38% of law school deans are women: the job is very different these days.

“I served as the interim dean of Berkeley’s law school for 17 months, and it was the hardest 17 months of my professional career,” she said. “The amount of granular, student focused work that a law school dean has to do is significant.”

Melissa described counselling students in the Middle East over the phone when the travel ban went into effect about how to get back into the United States and about what to do if their credit cards no longer had any credit on them to buy a ticket.

“These kinds of things would likely have been unfathomable to deans 20 years ago,” she said.

“Law schools are more financially precarious than ever,” Melissa explained. “There’s a lot of cost-cutting, a lot of interaction with campus that perhaps law schools didn’t have to do in quite the same way years ago. So part of me celebrates that the number of law school leaders who are women has increased, but another part of me wonders whether that’s because the role has become incredibly demanding and taken on a dimension of housework that’s less appealing for some.”

A Plausible Explanation

Despite her concerns, Melissa didn’t seem at all discouraged. The child of emigres from Jamaica, Melissa had a grandmother who insisted that each of her five girls, one of whom was Melissa’s mother, “at least graduate from high school.” When Melissa’s mother, a nurse, attended Melissa’s Yale Law School graduation, “she was sobbing,” Melissa recounted. “And I was mortified,” she laughed.

Melissa’s mother explained that she was so emotional because she “never imagined having a daughter who would become a lawyer.”

Comparing her experience to her grandmother’s, Melissa pointed out, “That’s just two generations. So the change has come quickly. And I think when it comes that quickly, it’s hard for institutions to catch up, even if they have the best of intentions.”