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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Beyond Big Law: Toward a More Inclusive Study of Gender in the Legal Profession

  • Author(s): Arsiniega, Brittany
  • et al.

This Article reviews research and theory in the field of gender in the legal profession using a framework developed by feminist theorist Barbara Risman.  Risman asserts that gender is a social structure, “an entity in and of itself,” which operates on the individual, interactional, and institutional levels.  Using Risman’s tripartite framework, I explore two prominent questions in the gender and legal professions literature: (1) Why do men and women advance differently in their careers? and (2) Are women more or less satisfied with their legal careers than men?  In doing so, I demonstrate that the vast majority of theories of gender inequality in the legal profession, and the research methods undertaken to test them, focus on individual and institutional analysis to the exclusion of interactional analysis.

I further highlight a lack of research focusing on the ways in which gender is embedded in interactions between female lawyers and those who shape their career choices: partners, friends, mentors, and colleagues.  I argue that existing research reifies Big Law partnership by using such positions as the measuring stick against which all other legal positions are valued.  I further argue that current studies unintentionally perpetuate gender stereotypes by conceiving of gender inequality as a women-only issue.  Work-life balance is conflated with having children such that the notion of having a life outside of work is itself now gendered.  I call for a renewed study of the interaction between gender and other intersectional identities like race and class, given the unique set of challenges faced by female attorneys who are also racial minorities and/or live on less than a Big Law salary.  I further offer policy recommendations, including government- or firm-sponsored childcare and gender-related legal education for law students and lawyers.

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