St. Mary's Law Journal


Nancy L. Farrer


This Commentary examines the effect United States Supreme Court decisions on sex discrimination in the legal profession. Discrimination against women currently appears to be alive and well in the legal field. Decisions like Bradwell v. Illinois and In re Lockwood frustrated women attorneys for over a century, allowing states to determine women were unfit for occupations in areas like law. Hishon v. King & Spalding, and later, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, applied Title VII protections to evaluations of potential law firm partners—a process previously closed and unassailable for most of the history of the legal profession. More recently, Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. reinforced the need for sexual harassment prevention policies. Part II of this Commentary presents a historical overview of women’s struggles to gain access to law schools and admission to the bar. Part III describes changes in law firm employment practices, and Part IV discusses the Court’s decisions involving discrimination in partnership decisions of professional firms. Part V concludes that while the Court prohibited the most overt forms of sex discrimination in professional partnership decisions, subtle and unconscious bias still exists in the legal profession. The Court’s decisions acknowledge that gender discrimination does exist at the upper echelons of law firms and other professional organizations. Furthermore, those decisions give notice that partners are exposed to liability when they allow bias to motivate employment decisions. The most important function the Supreme Court may perform is to continue to remind all who go before the bar that discrimination is insidious and destructive. This bias affects women’s careers as well as the legal profession, which stands to lose not only dedicated and talented professionals, but the respect of the public it exists to represent.


St. Mary's University School of Law