Women in the law have come a long way since the Supreme Court of Illinois denied Myra Bradwell’s petition for a license to practice law in 1869. However, while Illinois passed a law in 1872 providing that “No person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession or employment (except military) on account of sex,” significant challenges to equal representation still exist.
The number of women in the legal profession has steadily increased over time. Currently, and for the last several years, women have accounted for more than 50% of American law students. Yet, they continue to face challenges in retention and advancement in legal organizations that men don’t.
Female lawyers face unique challenges
According to NALP and the National Association of Women Lawyers, the number of women who are equity partners in law firms has only crept up to the 20% mark. This may be in part because women continue to shoulder more childcare, elder family care, and household tasks than their male counterparts. (It is becoming clear that the challenges facing women, and especially mothers of school-aged children, have been exacerbated by the pandemic—the subject of a post for another day.)
These obligations make women less likely to be able to meet their billable hour requirements, to be chosen for mentorship or sponsorship opportunities, or to obtain high-profile, high-travel assignments.
A successful legal career is a necessary part of becoming a judge. So, it’s no surprise that female representation on the bench still lags behind that of men. Across the nation, no state has as many female judges as males. Illinois ranks slightly above the national average in terms of female representation on the bench, according to the National Association of Women Judges. In Illinois, women make up almost one-third of all state court judges.
Digging deeper, women account for 32% (280) of Illinois’ 876 circuit court judges and 39% (21) of the state’s 54 appellate court justices. Currently, three of our seven (43%) Illinois Supreme Court justices are female.
Perspectives from female judges
At the Commission on Professionalism, we’re fortunate to have three female Commissioners who also serve as Illinois judges. We spoke to them about the importance of women on the bench and advice for those who are pondering a judicial career.
Judge Alicia N. Washington presides in the 10th Judicial Circuit’s Traffic Court, Judge Diane M. Shelley presides over an individual commercial calendar in the Circuit Court of Cook County, and Judge Debra B. Walker sits in the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Domestic Relations Division.
What is the importance of female judges?
Judge Washington: Our judicial system relies on citizens trusting judicial decision-making. People enjoy and deserve judges who reflect their image. We need women judges because we have both female and male defendants who deserve to have qualified judges with unique voices and trained minds to deliver justice.
Judge Shelley: It is important that we have women judges because women are over 50% of the population in America and our judiciary should be representative.
Further, women bring empathy to the bench. A judge hears legal and factual arguments and is charged with selecting the better of the arguments. Being empathic enables judges to understand and consider all the variables that should be analyzed, including the positions, feelings, and experiences of the parties.
Empathy doesn’t tell a judge how to decide a case but is a procedural manner and means by which judges should hear a case.
Judge Walker: I agree with my colleagues. One thing I would add is that many women judges are also mothers, and from where I sit in the Domestic Relations Division, being a mother has been of great help.
For example, judges in the Domestic Relations Division need to decide issues about mothers breastfeeding juxtaposed against parenting time for fathers, as well as numerous other parenting and domestic violence decisions.
What advice do you have for women who are interested in judicial careers?
Judge Washington: First, I recommend each female lawyer assembles a team of trusted advisors. The advisors would include former lawyers, current lawyers, and community members who support the individual female lawyer. They can give you guidance from their perspective. You must keep your life full of diverse experiences to be able to relate to the public, whose trust you need while administering justice.
In addition, don’t be afraid of self-promoting. Join local, state, and national legal organizations in your field. Don’t hesitate to announce your legal wins; write an article or share verdicts with a local publication or present at a conference.
Also, check out the application for the position being sought so that as your legal journey progresses, you can analyze your successes in light of important benchmarks that are part of the judicial selection process.
Finally, the image of your future sometimes starts when you dream it. Close your eyes and say the word “judge” while imagining your face. Say to yourself, “Why not me?” Don’t give up on your dream. Be prepared to fight to have your voice heard.
Judge Shelley: You shouldn’t focus only on developing your resume and political and personal connections, but also professional and personal qualities, such as respect for the court and your colleagues, a reputation of being efficient and honest, knowledge of the breadth of the law, and an understanding and respect of the constituents that you will be called upon to serve. A reputation for these qualities will propel you forward.
Judge Walker: My best advice about setting one’s sights upon becoming a judge can be encapsulated in three words which begin with E: education, engagement, and endurance.
With regard to education, perform to the best of your ability in high school, college, and law school. Pick an excellent law school and remember to continuously learn after law school. As you select legal positions, be sure to pick jobs where you will constantly be learning new aspects of the law. That will serve as a solid foundation for the bench.
Pertaining to engagement, I strongly suggest that you take on leadership roles in bar associations. It will be the bar associations that will vet you for the bench, and you want to be found Qualified or Recommended by all the bar associations. In addition, be sure to become engaged in your neighborhood, religious, and local school communities. These will be the folks who help spread the word about your candidacy.
By endurance, I mean you have to persevere. You should know that becoming a judge may take years of trying. Keep your eye on the goal. Seek each manner of becoming a judge – via appointment or election. Seek a judgeship in federal and state court. Don’t give up. It may be a marathon, not a sprint. It took me nine years of trying, but I was finally successful and now serve on the Circuit Court of Cook County.
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