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Executive Summary: Advancing women in the law

Vol. 77, No. 2/ Mar. - Apr. 2021

Mischa Buford EppsMischa Buford Epps

Mischa Buford Epps is executive director of The Missouri Bar.


Each March, we take time to celebrate Women’s History Month.

There is much to celebrate in 2021, as we saw the inauguration of our first female vice president of the United States, who also is a woman lawyer of color. That significance is not lost on me as I’ve frequently overheard our 5-year-old daughter mention “our Vice President Kamala Harris” in FaceTime calls with her friends.

In addition to the vice-presidential milestone, we also celebrate female lawyers and judges serving in key positions across our state. Among our federal judiciary in Missouri, Hon. Beth Phillips serves as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri; Hon. Shirley Padmore Mensah serves as chief magistrate judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri; and Hon. Kathy Surratt-States serves as chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. 

Three in ten of Missouri’s 415 state court judges are women.2 With Hon. Cindy Reams Martin serving as the chief judge of the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District, and Hon. Mary Kathryn Hoff serving as the chief judge of the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District, two of our three Court of Appeals Districts are led by women. Hon. Mary R. Russell and Hon. Patricia Breckenridge serve on the Supreme Court of Missouri. In early March, the legal community recognized the retirement of the second female judge appointed to the highest court of our state, Judge Laura Denvir Stith. She retired after ably serving the people as a member of the Supreme Court of Missouri for the last 20 years and as a previous member of the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District.

In the Missouri General Assembly, 52 of our state’s 197 legislators are women (26.4%). Three of these women are lawyer-legislators, including Rep. Sarah Unsicker, Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, and Sen. Barbara Washington.

Of the 85% of Missouri’s active lawyers who reported their gender in the 2020 enrollment process, 36% identified as female. This is consistent with national figures from the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, a tally of lawyers by every lawyer-licensing agency in every state, which reported that in 2020, 37% of the nation’s lawyers are women. 

More women than ever are also leading U.S. law schools. In 2000, only one in 10 law school deans were women. By 2009, that number doubled. And, as of June 1, 2020, 41% of all law school deans were women, according to Rosenblatt’s Deans Database at the Mississippi College School of Law. What’s more, three of our four law schools in Missouri are led by female deans – Deans Barbara Glesner-Fines (University of Missouri-Kansas City), Lyrissa Lidsky (University of Missouri), and Nancy Staudt (Washington University).

Of course, there is always room for improvement.

Roughly half of all law school graduates have been female since 2000, but despite slow improvements in recent years, the number of women in senior leadership roles at U.S. law firms is far less than half. About 21% of all equity partners and 31% of all non-equity partners were female in 2019, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers.  Women of color are also under-represented among law firm leaders. While 14% of law firm associates were women of color in 2019, they make up only 5% of non-equity partners and 3% of equity partners.3  Regardless of practice setting, female lawyers of color leave the legal profession at disproportionately higher rates as highlighted in the “Left Out and Left Behind” report published by the ABA in July 2020.4

Increasing numbers of experienced female lawyers are leaving law firms or the practice altogether. A 2019 survey of more than 1,200 senior lawyers at the nation’s biggest private law firms revealed that male and female lawyers strongly disagreed on how well their firms fostered long-term careers for women. Women surveyed were far more likely than men to report factors that blocked their “access to success,” including lacking access to business development opportunities, being perceived as less committed to career, and being denied promotion.5

In 2013, the Supreme Court of Missouri, in conjunction with The Missouri Bar, created the Joint Commission on Women in the Profession to eliminate barriers to the advancement of women in the law and combat bias in the justice system and the profession with the goal of securing full and equal protection of women in the law. Leadership of the Joint Commission on Women in the Profession recently changed hands with Amy Bender-Levy and Stephanie Wan becoming co-chairs.

Having served as the Supreme Court liaison to the Joint Commission from 2013-2020, Judge Stith was a fierce advocate for the revisions to Supreme Court Rule 6.06, making it easier for women to re-enter the profession after a hiatus –  a situation that  can  hinder women specifically in returning to work after caring for a child or elderly parent. 

Under the able leadership of past co-chairs Megan Phillips (2013-2020), Bill Bay (2013-2015), and Karen Glickstein (2016-2020), the Joint Commission’s past successful efforts also include:

  • Hosting and participating in several symposiums and training events addressing issues like implicit bias and successful networking/mentorship for women in the profession.  
  • Successfully advocating for lactation accommodation in state courthouses.  
  • Revising the annual enrollment form to include a checkbox for gender, which will facilitate analysis of women’s representation in Missouri legal sectors moving forward. 

The new Joint Commission co-chairs hope to provide education and CLEs pertaining to gender issues in the law, address the pressing issues that are facing women lawyers in our state, connect with employers and allies to work toward better equity among genders, and collect critical information to help achieve these goals.

All allies, not just women, are encouraged to get involved with the bar’s Committee on Women in the Profession, mentor other lawyers and law students, collaborate through panels and programming, and create concrete action plans for your legal organization to develop and promote female attorneys.It will take all of us – male and female – to have real discussions and make a true impact.

Best regards,

1  Mischa Buford Epps is executive director of The Missouri Bar.
2  Diversity and Inclusion in the Missouri Judiciary (2019), https://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=151493.
3  National Association of Women Lawyers, 2020 Report on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, https://www.nawl.org/p/cm/ld/fid=2019.
4  Destiny Peery, Paulette Brown & Eileen Letts,Left Out and Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-Term Legal Careers for Women of Color (American Bar Association 2020).
5  Roberta D. Liebenberg & Stephanie A. Scharf,Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice (American Bar Association 2019).