Only one woman worked on the staff of the Harvard Law Review when Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrived on campus in 1956. It would be another two decades before a woman was elected to lead the school’s prestigious legal journal.
“It’s such a contrast to the ancient days when I was in law school,” Ginsburg said during a gathering in Washington to mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. “There really is no better time for women to enter the legal profession.”
The event in part celebrated the statistical improbability of an all-female sweep of elections at the leading publications of legal scholarship at schools including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Columbia and Duke universities. The editors in chief collaborated for the first time to publish a Women & Law journal with a series of essays from prominent female lawyers.
But there was also recognition, as the women came together dressed in dark power suits, of the reality that men still dominate the ranks of law firms, the federal judiciary and academia.
“It doesn’t cure every problem with women in the law,” Georgetown’s top editor, Grace Paras, said of the journal distributed at the event, “but it shows the possibility of what women in leadership can do.”
In recent years, the number of women enrolling in accredited law schools has exceeded the number of men, according to the American Bar Association.
But women make up less than a quarter of law firm equity partners, a quarter of tenured and tenure-track law professors, and about a third of all active federal district and appeals court judges.
“There is certainly more glass yet to be shattered,” Duke Law professor Marin Levy told the crowd after ticking off the statistics. “But I see a whole lot of hammers out there.”
The highly competitive editor in chief post is considered the top student leadership role on law school campuses and a coveted credential for job prospects. The editorial staff decides which articles, from a flood of professor and practitioner submissions, to publish in journals showcasing the latest legal debates.
Elections involve position papers, interviews and public speaking. Candidates must show exceptional writing skills and an ability to manage a large organization and a hefty workload.
In January 2019, after her election as editor, Duke Law student Farrah Bara watched in amazement as the email announcements rolled in from other schools. She seized on the anomalous results to rally her all-female cohort to create a joint publication with all 16 of their names on the masthead.
The daughter of Jordanian immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from college, Bara has racked up successes. At the University of Texas at Austin, the speech team she led won the national championship in 2016. At Duke, she and a partner won the 2019 moot court competition in which students argue in a mock appeal. Bara has lined up a job at the powerhouse firm Williams and Connolly and will clerk for two federal judges in her home state of Texas.
But Bara said she was still stunned by the election results. In the course of her legal studies, Bara said, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the nation’s system of laws was created and shaped by men — those who wrote the Constitution, the laws in Congress and the rulings from the nation’s highest court.
Only four women have ever served on the Supreme Court. Three are now sitting at the same time.
“There’s nothing astounding about having nine men on the Supreme Court because we’ve had that for decades and decades,” she said. The all-female lineup was surprising because “we just don’t think about women in positions of power in such high numbers. We think of a critical mass as three of nine.”
Women are also underrepresented at oral argument at the high court. In the past five terms, 17 percent of the advocates were women, according to Supreme Court scholar Adam Feldman, creator of the blog Empirical SCOTUS.
Judge Cornelia T. Pillard, who participated in the discussion with Ginsburg, lamented the relatively small numbers of women she sees in the pool of applicants for highly sought after clerkships with the judges on her court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and encouraged more to apply.
Even so, Ginsburg credited her newest colleague, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, for becoming the first to hire all women to serve as his law clerks. As a result, more women than men held the coveted posts for the first time during the last term.
At Georgetown’s Law Journal, Paras was elected from a field of 11 candidates, becoming the third consecutive woman at the top. Her successor, elected in January, is another woman, Toni Deane, also the publication’s first black editor in chief.
Paras grew up in New Jersey and before law school had deep experience as an advocate for detained immigrants. Still, she said, it took an extra push from a friend to overcome doubts about running against her talented classmates.
“It’s not just about us running, but about our peers seeing women leaders in that role,” said Paras, who will work at the nonprofit Public Citizen before back-to-back federal clerkships in New York. “Our peers at these top law schools thought we were the best fit in what is considered to be a prestigious, important position.”