In Legal Profession, Not All Roles Created Equal
Government data shows diversity, especially gender makeup, varies widely between legal profession segments

by Julia Cardi

Discussions about diversity in the legal profession tend to focus on lawyers in private practice: Women and people of color fill more associate positions than partner positions, and diversity is even more scarce in equity and managing partner ranks. A report from the American Bar Association focused on large law firms explores the exit of women from the legal profession as one reason they comprise 30% or less of the partners in BigLaw, even though they represent almost half of new associate classes.

But data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey show diversity varies even more among non-attorney segments of the profession, such as legal support roles and judicial employees.

According to BLS data from 2019, paralegals and legal assistants have the starkest difference from lawyers in gender makeup of the professions. The statistics show women make up just over 36% of all lawyers, but nearly 9 in 10 paralegal or legal assistant positions. Racial differences are noticeable but not nearly as large: The data shows 77.1% of paralegals and legal assistants are white compared to 86.6% of lawyers.

Kyle McEntee, a co-founder of the Law School Transparency think tank that focuses on diversity and student debt, said demographics among legal support roles may be a different conversation than diversity of the pipelines that feed into lawyer ranks in the legal profession. Paralegal and legal assistant careers are distinct paths, and people who choose them do not necessarily intend to eventually become lawyers.

“I would think that it’s more just systemic about the kind of work we societally expect women to do,” he said.

The president of the American Association for Paralegal Education couldn’t be reached for an interview for this story.

Data from the BLS about support roles in other professions provide a clue about the comparison of legal support role demographics to support roles in other professions. For example, health care support occupations such as medical assistants and physician assistants are nearly all majority-women professions, while women make up only 40% of physicians and surgeons.

Meera Deo, the director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement and a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, said the few different approaches people have to their career paths in legal support roles may affect the likelihood of their desire to go to law school. She said paralegals or legal assistants who are interested in the legal profession but don’t have the time or financial resources for law school may be likely to stay in their support roles, especially if their jobs allow them to perform many functions of a lawyer. But those working in support roles to test their interest in the legal profession may be more likely to eventually go to law school.

To read the rest of this article, and others featured in the May 11 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.