Prominent local attorney Virginia Dill McCarty earned her law degree from Indiana University in 1950, the only woman to do so at the school that year.
That trend certainly has changed since then, with far more women entering the bar. Still, the number of women at the highest levels of most law firms is far smaller than many expect it should be, according to a report from the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, D.C.
In Indianapolis last year, 15.7 percent of partners were women, the NALP report said. The figure troubles Kerry Blomquist, chairwoman of the Indianapolis Bar Association's Women and the Law Division and executive director of the Protective Order Pro Bono Project of Greater Indianapolis, a not-for-profit that provides free legal assistance to domestic violence victims.
"There's a sticky floor and a glass ceiling," Blomquist, 43, said. "Since the 1980s, women have been graduating law school in large numbers, but that isn't reflected in partnership numbers."
Blomquist's division of the local bar will probe the situation and may take some sort of action. That could result in following the Chicago Bar Association and issuing a challenge to local law firms to promote more women into partnership ranks, Blomquist said.
The CBA called on Chicago law firms late last month to increase the ratio of women partners, which currently stands at 18.1 percent, by three percentage points over the next three years.
Partnership represents the brass ring for lawyers who enter private practice. Starting in large law firms as associates, young lawyers might bill about 2,000 hours a year for as long as eight years to be considered for partnership. Upon achieving the status, lawyers invest in the firm and share in the spoils.
But according to the NALP study, women remain far from achieving professional parity with their male colleagues. Although women have made up 40 percent or more of law school graduates since the late 1980s, only 17 percent nationwide have made partner, NALP said.
Women made up 48 percent of fulltime, first-year students last year at the IU School of Law in Indianapolis. In the meantime, the percentage of women partners in the city has remained flat in recent years, ranging from 15.1 percent to 16.5 percent since 2001.
Family obligations may be partly responsible for the disparity, Blomquist said.
"I think women can do it all; I just think it's very difficult to do it all at one time," said Blomquist, who juggles her work with school room-mother duties for her 8- and 11-year-old children. "We're trying to do everything at one time."
Diane Yu of New York University and chairwoman of the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession, maintains a list of six reasons she fondly calls the "Dirty Half-Dozen." They range from the obvious demands related to child rearing to more subtle barriers as a shortage of good mentors and networking opportunities women attributed to the so-called "old-boys network."
If women who are raising families can't work at home while trying to bill enough hours to become partner, they're never going to earn a salary equal to their male peers who have been elevated to partner, Yu said. The median weekly salary for female lawyers is 76 percent that of men's, according to the ABA.
There's no doubt biases remain in the profession, said Yu, citing tales from colleagues who say they've been mistaken for clerks and court reporters during trials.
"We would encourage the law firms in Chicago and other cities to take a hard and thorough analytical look at what they're doing," she said. "Some of this is clearly in the control of the law firm."
Ice Miller, the city's largest law firm, has taken initiatives to offer women lawyers advancement in a family-friendly environment, said Phil Bayt, one of the firm's managing partners. Women there make up 23 percent of the partners and 50 percent of the associates, he said.
The profession has made great strides since the days when Dill McCarty, 80, was a young lawyer. She said the only job offer she received from a large law firm following law school was to lead its pool of secretaries. For women to practice law, they had to do it on their own or join with their husbands, Dill McCarty said. That began to change in the 1970s when the equal rights movement began to gather momentum.
"There just weren't any women [at law firms] and nobody minded saying so," she said. "They might as well have had a sign that said, 'No women allowed.'"