More and more, women graduates from the University of Missouri School of Law have a presence in courts across the state and nation.
First-year women students in the law school reached a majority in 2021 for the first time, at 51%. Last year, female students were 56% of the first-year class. As recently as 2018, women were 38% of first-year law students.
It’s an important milestone, but just a start, said Paul Litton, interim dean of the law school.
“I see it as important progress,” Litton said. “Women now outnumber men in the law school, but they’re still outnumbered in the profession. We should celebrate the progress towards equal representation in the profession.”
Women are just over 30% of Missouri judges, 138 of 422.
Attracting women students has been intentional, Litton said.
“When prospective students look at our law school, they’ll see our student leaders are men and women,” Litton said. “Women are leaders on our journals, in student organizations and on our competitive teams. We have distinguished and accomplished women attorneys on our faculty who are role models and mentors to our students.”
Adding women attorneys and judges to the profession is important, he said.
“There are clients who want lawyers who understand them, who they think see the world as they see it,” Litton said. “Our government leaders also come from the legal field. Women face implicit bias and unequal treatment in the legal profession, but with more women attorneys in leadership, mentoring junior attorneys, we would expect bias to decrease.”
Mary Russell, a judge on the Missouri Supreme Court, graduated from the law school when one-third of the class was female, she said.
“We did realize we were in a non-traditional profession for women in a profession dominated by men,” Russell said. “We had only one female professor, Rhonda Thomas, as a role model. She could talk about what it was like to be in the profession.”
A variety of circumstances led her to pursue law, she said. She started out as a reporter for her hometown newspaper in Hannibal, covering courts.
“A kind associate court judge explained the procedures and helped me learn the vocabulary,” Russell said.
She also interned at the State Capitol and the US Capitol, gaining more exposure to the legal field.
“I was from a rural area,” Russell said. “I had never seen a female lawyer, so I didn’t know if I would be able to do it. I didn’t have the confidence to speak in public.”
The confidence came through the MU law school and in professional life, she said.
Seeking a first job at law firms had its huddles, Russell said. She and other women applying for jobs would remove their engagement or wedding rings because they knew firms expected them to work endless hours with no consideration of a life outside of work.
She didn’t apply to firms that already had a female lawyer, because the idea was that the firm had filled its quota, she said.
She sees it as an obligation to mentor new women lawyers and law students.
“I love mentoring young people,” Russell said. “I didn’t get where I am without a lot of help from both men and women.”
Because there were so few women lawyers when she started, most of her mentors were men, she said.
“My biggest female mentor is Ann Covington, who was the first woman judge on the Missouri Supreme Court and was the first woman chief justice,” Russell said.
Russell praised Covington, of Columbia, during a bicentennial talk on the Missouri judiciary in 2021 where Covington was in the audience.
“Many of us women in the court think of her as our godmother,” Russell said at the time.
The increasing number of female students in the MU law school is something to be proud of, she said.
“I think it’s fabulous,” Russell said. “I know it’s been a nationwide trend. When you consider our population, why shouldn’t there be at least an equal number of women lawyers? I think having women lawyers and judges to help people just strengthen our profession.”
In 2020, women outnumbered men in law schools nationwide for the fifth consecutive year, according to a report by Enjuris.
MU will continue making strides toward equality in the legal profession, Litton said.
“There are many benefits to equal opportunity,” he said. “It’s something we should celebrate.”
Roger McKinney is the Tribune’s education reporter. You can reach him at [email protected] or 573-815-1719. He’s on Twitter at @rmckinney9.
This article originally appeared on the Columbia Daily Tribune: Number of women students increasing in the MU School of Law