Tuesday, October 8, 2019
Even as the legal profession pledges to bolster diversity in its workforce, the number of female lawyers who argue before the U.S. Supreme Court is still bafflingly low.
At a recent Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia panel discussion titled “Supreme Court Advocacy: Where are the Women?” Williams & Connolly partner Sarah Harris reported that in the last Supreme Court term, 31 of the 184 appearances were women. That amounts to 17%, lower than some other recent terms, as tallied by SCOTUSBlog.
The numbers are even worse for female lawyers in private practice, Harris noted. Only seven of the 90 appearances by private practitioners were by women, “which is not very great,” she said. And among the 31 lawyers who argued on behalf of corporations, only three were women. Harris clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas in 2015 and 2016.
The number of female advocates of color is also dismal, though that data point is more difficult to tally, said Kelsi Corkran, a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and a former clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “When I talk to my friends who are women of color about their clerkships, they can’t point to a single person who looks like them who has done this before. I think we’re losing talent before the court.”
Numerous reasons but few solutions for the low numbers were advanced during the discussion. At the end of the event, moderator Amy Howe, a reporter for SCOTUSblog, said, “I wish we could stop having to have these discussions.”
One reason discussed for the dearth of women is the client’s preference for experienced Supreme Court advocates, which often, in self-fulfilling fashion, can rule out women. “Clients aren’t, especially in the big corporations, that keen to take a chance on a more junior advocate,” said Loren AliKhan, solicitor general for the District of Columbia and formerly a lawyer at O’Melveny & Myers.