Women Continue Gains in State Judiciary, Law Schools, but Few Still Reach Partner in Private Practice

March 08, 2018 07:06 PM

In terms of gender demographics, Minnesota's legal landscape reached yet another milestone in 2017.

For the first time, the number of women district court chief judges equaled that of men (five each). 


That keeps the state ahead of the curve nationally. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to appoint more women than men to its Supreme Court.

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The high court regained that majority again in 2016 with the appointment of Justice Anne McKeig. And by a margin of one, there is also a female majority on the state Court of Appeals. 

Though women have been entering the legal profession in record numbers for decades, the recent judicial gains are significant.

In 2009, just over 30 percent of the state's district court judges were women. In 2017, women comprised more than 44 percent. When the Supreme Court first became female-majority in 1991, just 12 percent of the state's district court judges were women. 

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On International Women's Day Thursday, Hennepin County District Court highlighted those serving as judges in the Fourth Judicial District, which serves the state's largest county, by tweeting a photo of district judges, the majority of whom are now women.

But as Minnesota State Bar Association president Sonia Miller-Van Oort points out, significant gains in gender representation in the judiciary, law schools and early private practice levels have been offset by very few gains in the number women reaching partner level at private firms, or ascending as high as their male counterparts in corporate law offices. 

"As years of (private) practice increase, there's a dramatic drop-off between women who become partners in law firms, and an even more dramatic drop-off for women as managing partners," Miller-Van Oort said. "In that regard, there has not been improvement in at least the last decade."

But, Miller-Van Oort said there is reason to celebrate the growing number of appointments of women and minorities to the judiciary. 

Within the Fourth Judicial District, 33 of 62 judges are women, including its chief judge Ivy S. Bernhardson, whose legal career in Minnesota has spanned four decades. 

Bernhardson recalled that upon graduating law school in 1978 she was one of very few women in General Mills' corporate law department, where she did transactional law. 

"I was always the only woman in the room – painfully – in the room, everywhere I went," she said. "For me, it was a very different world as a lawyer. But I was bound and determined to succeed, so I did not let that – what could have been perceived as a barrier – stop me from succeeding at what I did. 

"I do remember men being uncomfortable, not sure whether they should shake my hand or kiss my hand, you know, that sort of thing. So it was a very different world. … Now as a judge, it's delightful to see, sometimes we have court proceedings and it's all women."

Bernhardson is nearing the end of her first two-year term as chief judge, and announced recently her intentions to seek a second - the maximum allowed by law. She said she will likely hang it up after that term, should she win reelection.

In the meantime, she's proud her group of district judges is a representative one. 

"I think it is important to have a fair representation of our population reflected back when people come to court," she said. "We try to get diversity, too, between civil lawyers and criminal lawyers, so we have a lot of interesting backgrounds on our bench, and that's the way it should be."

It's not just the judiciary – where members are appointed, elected and maybe reelected – in which women have leveled the playing field, but in the state's greater legal community as well.

Demographic data released by the state Court Administrator's Office shows of the number of practicing women attorneys admitted to the Minnesota Bar over the last 41 years or more, only 127 remain practicing - compared to 1,613 men. 

But the difference becomes relatively miniscule for those attorneys admitted to the bar in the last 10 years. In that group, 3,476 women are practicing compared to 3,884 men. 

The demographic shift, years in the making, is reflected in metro-area laws schools. 

Mitchell-Hamline reported its total female enrollment for the 2016-17 year was 51 percent, and that its first-year class in 2017-18 was also at 51 percent.

Overall, according to spokesman Doug Belden, 50 percent of Mitchell-Hamline students are women.

A University of Minnesota Law School spokesman said women comprised 43 percent of the student population in 2007. Today, by a 4 percent margin, there are more women than men enrolled in the school for the first time in its 129-year history. 

Bernhardson said as much as a third of her class at the university's law school were women when she was there in the late-1970s, but she said, at that time, it was a relatively new phenomenon.

"And now I know it's more than half are women in law school," she said. "Women still struggle in the profession at the partner level in law firms – there's still some kind of a ceiling there. But, you know, here in the court system, over half of our bench are women, so we've broken through the barriers there."

Indeed, as Miller-Van Oort points out and the numbers show, just over 20 percent of women nationwide have achieved partner level, and just 18 percent have reached managing partner, according to the American Bar Association.

Among Fortune 500 general counsel, just 24.8 percent of attorneys are women, and among 501-1000 companies' general counsel, just 19.8 percent are women.

Still, leadership gains are being made.

Miller-Van Oort said one indicator of progress is reflected in the MSBA's leadership in the past 10 years, during which the association has elected the first American-Indian, openly gay and Latina (Miller-Van Oort) presidents in the state bar's 135-year history.

And so days like International Women's Day are important to celebrate, Bernhardson said.

"It's good to hold people up and to admire the progress that has been made, and I hope we can continue on that path."



Michael Oakes

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