Utah women ‘significantly underrepresented’ in legal careers, where they face bias and harassment

More women are reporting workplace harassment than they did a decade ago in Utah, new study found.

The percentage of women reporting workplace harassment across the legal field in Utah has sharply risen compared to a decade ago, according to a new study, with roughly one in four women saying they had been harassed in 2020.

And while more women are graduating from law school and working in law firms in Utah than in 2010, they remain “significantly underrepresented” in the legal profession compared to the rest of the nation. They “continue to face significant issues of bias,” in addition to “obstacles to advancement and promotion,” researchers wrote.

These findings are from a study released earlier this month by the organization Women Lawyers of Utah. It provides an update to a similar report published in 2010, showing where there has been progress and where improvements can still be made.

The study, conducted by sociology professor Christy Glass and researchers at Utah State University, included an online survey completed by more than 2,000 people in early 2020 and 47 in-depth interviews with female lawyers and judges across the state.

In Utah, women make up 23% of practicing attorneys, compared to 38% of women nationally. The gap grows among partners at law firms, with women representing 24% of partners across the country and 12% in Utah.

Men are almost twice as likely as women to hold a leadership role here, and while 47% of men hold a top job, “only 4% of women of color lawyers currently hold a leadership position in Utah,” according to the study.

While there’s been improvement in flexible work schedules and access to mentorship, Kimberly Neville, president of Women Lawyers of Utah, said what stood out to her was that 61% of lawyers in the state worked in offices without any women in senior roles in 2020.

(Photo courtesy of Dorsey & Whitney LLP) Kimberly Neville, partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, is president of Women Lawyers of Utah. The organization released a study in December examining where there's been improvements for women in the legal field over the last decade.

As a partner at Dorsey and Whitney LLP in Salt Lake City, Neville said she knows how women in positions like hers can “get spread really thin,” mentoring and training younger attorneys. Next year, she said, Women Lawyers of Utah hopes to help fill that role by ramping up its mentoring program.

“Law is such a collaborative practice,” Neville said, and if you’re not in the office, like during the coronavirus pandemic, it can be hard to pick up meaningful work and learn from others.

The study outlines best practices and areas that female lawyers said Utahns should focus on improving. Gabriela Mena, president-elect of the Utah Minority Bar Association, and Angelina Tsu, former president of the Utah State Bar, said they hope everyone — not just female lawyers — will read and learn from the study.

They both said they have benefited from mentors and male colleagues who helped make sure they had seats at the table.

“It doesn’t help just to engage women lawyers of color and think you can somehow solve this problem,” Tsu said. “This is a problem, I think, we all need to be part of solving.”

Women of color and LGBTQ attorneys

Women of color make up 10% or fewer of all legal positions in Utah, and their absence “is even more striking” in senior positions, according to the study. They represent “only 2% of Utah’s judiciary and only 1% of law firm partners,” researchers found.

Women of color are routinely challenged about their expertise and professionalism. One woman reported that opposing counsel referred to her as “that Mexican girl,” and another told researchers that despite her role as the senior legal counsel at her firm, “the other legal team requested that her CEO attend meetings.”

Mena, who’s an attorney with Skordas & Caston LLC in Salt Lake City, remembers a time when she was one of the first attorneys to arrive in a courtroom. She expected to be called first when the judge came out, but when the proceedings began, a white male attorney “jumped up … and beat me to the podium,” said Mena, who’s Hispanic. After Mena interjected and explained the situation to the judge, she said a female prosecutor leaned over and commended her for the move.

“It’s not something that ruins my day, but you stop and think about it,” Mena said. “Would he have done it if I was another white male? Another male?”

Mena has also been confused for a translator in court, and “I always have to correct them,” she said. According to the study, “many respondents, regardless of rank or position, are routinely mistaken for staff, paralegals or court reporters.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gabriela Mena, president-elect of the Utah Minority Bar Association, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. Mena, who's Hispanic, said she's been mistaken as a translator in court.

LGBTQ attorneys also told researchers they regularly encounter bias and discrimination, challenges in securing clients from the dominant culture and harassment from peers.

“One respondent recounted several instances of being harassed or bullied by opposing counsel due to her gender and sexual identity,” according to the report. “In one instance, she remained in the courtroom long after the proceeding had ended out of fear of being harassed in the hallway. In another instance, an opposing counsel included a paragraph in a brief to the court that referred to her as a ‘militant feminist lesbian.’”

Rising harassment

More women are reporting workplace harassment than they did a decade ago in Utah, according to the study, up to 27% in 2020 compared to 10% in 2010. Reports of sex discrimination also rose in that time frame, from 10% to 17%.

These increases may partly be a result of the #MeToo movement, which “has raised awareness of workplace harassment, highlighting the widespread impact on women’s careers and the need for cultural, legal and organizational changes to eliminate it in the workplace,” according to researchers.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

After graduating from law school in 2002, Tsu clerked in federal district court, worked for more than a decade as an attorney and served as president of the Utah State Bar in 2015. She said she decided to leave the legal field a couple of years ago, though, partly because of issues outlined in this study.

“For me, it felt like the world had changed when [Donald] Trump was elected in a way that was hostile for women lawyers, in particular,” Tsu said. She noticed more people screaming at her on the phone and said she received “really hateful email messages.”

(Photo courtesy of Angelina Tsu) Angelina Tsu previously served as president of the Utah State Bar. She left the legal field a couple of years ago, partly due to issues outlined in a new study from Women Lawyers of Utah.

A woman quoted in the study also described how colleagues screamed at her and were “very abusive.” A male colleague sitting next to the woman commented, “I have never been treated like that,’” according to the report.

“It’s life for women in the law,” the woman told researchers.

The number of women employed at law firms in Utah has increased by 11% since 2010, according to the study, and more women are working at in-house counsel positions. What Tsu said she found disappointing, though, was that female attorneys’ confidence in their chances for promotion had declined over time, with 57% optimistic about their chances in 2010 compared to 50% in 2020.

“A small proportion (6%) of women in 2020 perceived that they had lost out on opportunities for promotion because of an increased awareness regarding sexual harassment,” according to researchers.

Law school bias

Nationally, women represent half of law school graduates, but Utah’s rates vary depending on the school, researchers found. Women made up 53% of graduates at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law in 2020, compared to 40% at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Researchers found similar variances in the faculty and leadership at local law schools. At the U., women account for 49% of full-time faculty and 67% of deans and associates, while they made up 30% and 33% of those roles, respectively, at BYU, the study shows.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“Despite recent gains, women and students of color continue to face bias and harassment in law school,” according to the report.

One woman said that while her overall experience was positive at law school, male classmates routinely dismissed women’s achievements.

“I remember sitting up in the law review room, editing a paper,” she told researchers. “There were some guys at the end of the table talking and I could hear them. Internships had just gotten posted. They were mad,” and commented that a woman “got one of those spots and now there’s some guy with three kids and a mortgage who won’t have that spot.”

Another woman said she “received backlash from classmates, finding notes on her desk that said ‘woman come home.’” She was also asked “how she felt about deserting her kids,” according to the study.

“We have to start accepting as a society that being a parent is the same for a man as for a woman,” one respondent told researchers. “We’re both going to be working and women better have the opportunity without the guilt.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.