Sydney Forsander is accustomed to being one of the few women in the room. Sometimes the only one.
She’s a patent attorney, making her one of the mere 21.8% of women in her corner of her profession. Her specialty also demands a coveted background in science, tech, engineering and math.
But Forsander, a 32-year-old associate at Husch Blackwell, a law firm with offices in Chicago, said as she advances in her career, she’s started to notice more women entering the legal profession.
“It’s exciting to see the industry is making progress and gaining more women and diversity,” Forsander said.
The shift she’s described comes as women now represent 50.3% of associates at U.S. law firms, a report released this month by the National Association for Law Placement found. This is the first time women have reached that benchmark in the 33 years the association has been tracking law firm diversity data.
At Chicago firms, 48.9% of associates are women, up from 46.5% in 2022 and just short of the new national record for gender diversity in the legal profession.
“Overall, this is a report that shows progress,” said Nikia Gray, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, adding that “It’s fragile progress based on what’s going on politically and in our society today.
“It’s progress we have to be deliberate about protecting,” she added.
Making gains at the entry level
There’s still work to be done. People of color, women of color and LGBTQ attorneys are still underrepresented in the nation’s firms, the report found.
Despite the achievement at the entry level, women continue to be underrepresented among leadership, making up 27.8% of partners at U.S. firms. At Chicago firms, the report determined women represent 28.6% of partners. People of color make up 25.8% of associates and 10.7% of partners. Women of color make up 14.2% of associates and 4.5% of partners.
Firms are still having challenges in retaining women and helping them move toward partnerships, Gray said.
“For so long, the focus has been on recruiting women and diverse lawyers to get into the pipeline, and that’s what those numbers are showing,” said Nicole Bashor, a patent attorney and equity partner at Husch Blackwell.
“But the tricky thing is that for retaining them as partners and equity partners, there’s a steep drop-off,” she added. “Those recruiting efforts are not translating to staying power.”
Bashor, 45, emphasized that sponsoring younger attorneys can change the trajectory of their careers.
Sponsorship is an industrywide practice where a seasoned attorney vouches for an associate and gives them opportunities, like helping them develop clients, facilitating face time with clients or letting them lead meetings. Where a mentor provides valuable guidance and advice, a sponsor takes a more active role in developing an associate’s career.
“We need people at the higher level to make conscious decisions to include women in ways that work,” Bashor said.
Patent attorneys like Bashor and Forsander need to be experts in the technical aspects of their clients’ inventions, so they must hold STEM and law degrees. Bashor, a chemical engineer, is a sponsor and mentor for Forsander, a mechanical engineer, providing her with career guidance and exposure on the job.
They even went for a recent visit to one of Bashor’s clients — an industrial equipment manufacturer in Indiana — giving Forsander a chance to meet the client face-to-face.
“It makes all the difference, having strong female mentors to look up to,” Forsander said. “An intentional sponsor and mentor advocates for you and looks out for you, recommends doing things based on your career goals — all without you having to ask.”
Bashor, who identifies as LGBTQ and serves on the board of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago Foundation, was dismayed that only 2.6% of partners identify as LGBTQ nationwide. For associates, 6.8% are LGBTQ.
“It’s difficult to still see such a low number,” Bashor said. “But it’s a highlight that more associates are comfortable being identified. That’s a generational shift we’re seeing.”
The legal industry also has more work to do in hiring and retaining more women of color, Gray said.
The report’s findings help illustrate the challenge. Black and Latinx women each represent 3.5% and 3.6%, respectively, of lawyers at the associate level in Chicago, and Asian women make up nearly 5%, according to the diversity report.
The representation is even smaller for partners. Asian women make up about 2.1% of partners. Black and Latinx women don’t yet make up 1%.
“The fact that we don’t even meet or exceed the national average should be a call to action to leaders at Chicago law firms to ensure full representation of women, people of color and especially women of color,” said Mary Smith, president of the American Bar Association. Smith, based in Chicago, is the first Native American woman to lead the association.
Keeping the pipeline diverse
Cindy Buys, a law professor at Southern Illinois University School of Law, said this milestone is an exciting moment for the legal profession and reflects the diversity gains already made at law schools.
“Women have been going to law school in greater numbers than men for decades now. But it’s taken a long time for women to be represented in the profession in equal numbers,” Buys said.
Still, one of the reasons Gray calls the report’s findings fragile progress is the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action last year. Justices ruled that higher education institutions can no longer consider a person’s race during the application process.
Race-conscious admissions are especially needed for law schools, Gray said, and the court’s ruling poses a threat to the diversity pipeline from undergrad to law firms.
“The barriers to entry for the legal practice are incredibly high,” Gray said.
The Supreme Court decision means law schools now need to devote more resources to conducting a more individualized review of their applicants to ensure they continue admitting a diverse range of students, Buys said. While that will be a challenge, she says law schools are willing to make those investments.
The Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT exam and tracks diversity in law school applications each year, reported that the class of 2023 was the most diverse in history.
People of color make up 40.2% of first-year law students, and women represent 55.8%. The class is also nearly 14.7% LGBTQ+ and 24.2% are first-generation college graduates, both the highest percentages ever.
“The legal industry upholds and fights for individual rights,” Gray said. “So if we are going to make sure that the justice system is inclusive and equitable for all members of our country, the legal profession itself has to be representative of that.”