Making History and Transforming Lives
This issue of the Gargoyle is devoted to the history of women at the University of Wisconsin Law School. As the lead article reflects, our female graduates and faculty have blazed trails, regardless of their era. Our new senator from the state of Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin, will bring her UW legal training as the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate, while Vel Phillips brought hers to many firsts in her leadership roles as judge, politician, and activist in her Milwaukee community.
While law and custom placed barriers in the way of some Wisconsin Law women, in the end they surmounted those barriers and made extraordinary contributions to their communities. Belle Case La Follette used her legal education throughout her professional life, even though she was never admitted to practice because of her gender; Margo Melli used her exclusion from private law practice to build a career in teaching, advocacy, and law reform. The Law School is intensely proud of the role that we play in equipping our graduates to serve their clients, their communities, and the cause of justice.
That applies to all of our graduates, not just women. You will read in this issue about Jimmy Anderson, who overcame quite remarkable obstacles to graduate from the Law School this past December. Seeing the photos of Jimmy and his wife enjoying the Homecoming cane toss made many of us smile. Enabling our graduates to achieve their life’s goals, and in the process to change their lives and the lives of those they serve, is what makes us here at the Law School excited to come to work every day.
We do, however, need to be especially attentive to the role of women in the legal profession for a very specific reason: the percentage of women who are seeking to enter our profession has dropped significantly over the last decade. Many of the graduates I meet from earlier times assume that our student body is now about half women, and are surprised to learn that’s not true. We got very close to parity in 2008, but since then the percentage of women applying to enter the Law School has dropped. The Class of 2016 is 39 percent women, and that reflects the percentage of women in our applicant pool. This is not a Wisconsin phenomenon, but a nationwide one.
While there are many theories about why fewer women are seeking to enter the legal profession, we don’t yet know why this is the case. It probably is not irrelevant, however, that women make up less than 20 percent of law firm partners, 15 percent of equity partners, and 25 percent of judges on the federal bench. While the number of women deans at U.S. law schools has risen significantly in recent years, we still represent only 20 percent of the total. Those of us in legal education are committed to working with the leadership of the profession to assure that opportunities at every level of the practice are equally open and available to all who choose — with commitment, passion, and hard work — to pursue them.
At the Law School, our goal is to make sure that our environment is hospitable to students from a wide range of backgrounds and experience; that we prepare graduates rigorously and completely for the world of twenty-first century practice, and that we participate, as members of the community of practitioners, in making sure that the profession provides opportunities to all for professional success, fulfillment, and accomplishment at all levels. We expect that, in facing the challenges of the future, our graduates will continue to be trailblazers.
In the meanwhile, one shameless plug: with a faculty well populated with brilliant, impressive, inspiring women, and with our remarkable history, we think the UW Law School is a wonderful place for a woman considering law school. If you know college graduates (whatever their gender) who are thinking about law school, I encourage you to send them our way.
— Dean Margaret Raymond