In the past a few decades, feminization has been one of the most notable developments in the legal profession worldwide. From Continental Europe to North America, from Latin America to Asia, research has shown a rapid increase in the proportion of female lawyers in vastly different national and legal contexts (see Kay and Gorman 2008 for a review). Yet few existing studies provide a good cross-national comparison of the global trends of lawyer feminization. Despite the enduring structural barriers in recruitment, compensation, and promotion that women face in law firms and other elite legal institutions, they have continued to enter the bar in vastly different social contexts. What are the driving forces behind the feminization of lawyers? And how does this process vary from one country to another?
Using data on lawyer populations and gender compositions assembled from national censuses and lawyer statistics in 86 countries, Ethan Michelson’s recent study offers a comprehensive and convincing analysis of the relationship between bar expansion and lawyer feminization. Despite large variations of legal systems and lawyer demographics across different countries, Michelson finds a highly consistent pattern, that is, almost no country’s legal profession has attained a feminization level of at least 30% of women before its lawyer density (i.e., lawyer/population ratio) surpassed a level of 2,000 people per lawyer. In other words, feminization is part of some larger demographic changes in the legal profession worldwide.
The champion of feminization is Uruguay, where more than 60% of lawyers are women and the 30% threshold was crossed as early as 1974. Other Latin American and Caribbean countries were also early birds in this process. Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland, and Romania are among the most feminized legal professions, with at least 50% of female lawyers. In comparison, the United States crossed the 30% threshold as late as 2005, with a starting point of less than 4% female lawyers in 1960. At the other end of the spectrum we find Asian countries such as India, Korea, Japan, and China, where women still account for less than 20% of the legal professions by 2010.
After describing the cross-national variations of lawyer feminization, Michelson presents the core findings of the article, namely, the correlations between lawyer density and feminization. By the scatterplots of 335 country-years on a two-dimensional space with four quadrants (A, B, C, and D) divided by density (2,000 people per lawyer) and feminization (30% of women), the analysis shows that the historical process of lawyer feminization has generally been one of the movement from (A) low density and low feminization, to (B) high density and low feminization, and then to (D) high density and high feminization. Very few countries had reached the 30% threshold before reaching a lawyer density of 2,000 people per lawyer (i.e., in quadrant C, low density and high feminization). This pattern is also confirmed by multivariate regression models using longitudinal panel data.
The next step that Michelson takes is an even more daunting statistical task, that is, to produce annual estimates of both the global population of lawyers and the global proportional representation of women among lawyers from 1970 to 2010. In this 40-year period, the estimated global lawyer population grew from 1.1 million to 5.0 million, with a 2.2 million increase for male lawyers and a 1.7 million increase for female lawyers. Although the absolute number of male lawyers was larger than that of female lawyers, the growth rate of the latter was much faster due to a very low starting point. However, China and India, the two most populous countries, are extreme outliers in this process. In 2010, those two countries had an estimated 12.4% of the world’s lawyers but only 3.5% of the world’s female lawyers. Even the United States is slightly below average in terms of lawyer feminization. Based on the statistical estimates, Michelson concludes that the global feminization of the legal profession has hardly begun. As large developing countries such as India and China further develop their legal professions to accommodate demands of economic growth and globalization, it is likely that we will observe both a larger number and a higher proportion of women in the legal profession globally in the near future.
Despite its technical nature, this article is a significant contribution to the scholarship on the legal profession in at least two aspects. First, it brings demography back to the empirical research on lawyers, which has been dominated by other concerns such as inequality, ethics, client relationship, or political mobilization in the past two decades. A good earlier study on lawyer demography is Halliday’s 1986 article on the American legal profession, but Michelson’s study is not only more sophisticated methodologically, but also a pioneering experiment on comparing lawyer demography cross-nationally. It is an admirable effort that will guide future research on gender and other issues in various national contexts.
Second, while socio-legal researchers have been generally skeptical of cross-national comparisons on lawyer/population ratios because of the vastly different legal systems, political systems, and legal services markets across the deep divide of Anglo-American law and Continental law (e.g., Rueschemeyer 1986), Michelson’s study suggests that lawyer density does have a global effect on the feminization of the bar as well as access to justice for women, as female lawyers are generally more likely to represent female clients. It would be fascinating to explore the global or local effects of other demographic phenomena such as lawyer migration (e.g., Liu, Liang, and Michelson 2014) or intergenerational reproduction (e.g., Dezalay and Garth 2002) on the social structure of the bar in future research. In this sense, this path-breaking study is just the beginning of research on the global demography of lawyers.