Is Delivering Access to Justice Perceived as Women’s Work?

I noticed it first this past summer when I attended the joint International Journal of Clinical Legal Education – Association for Canadian Clinical Legal Education conference in Toronto. It was my first time attending and I had no idea what to expect.

What I found was a group of very smart, dedicated and focused academics and lawyers engaged in the field of clinical legal education. What I noticed was that the gender balance among conference attendees was weighted heavily in favour of women.

Upon returning to the office after the conference, I looked around at our summer students – 5 female and 1 male. I then recalled noticing there were only a few male applicants for those positions and many more female applicants. The legal clinic I work in is staffed by two female lawyers, a female articling student and led by a female executive director.

At the end of the summer, we received class lists for the current crop of law school interns – once again, heavily weighted toward women, although the gender balance in the law school itself is relatively even. I asked a colleague teaching a course focused on access to justice about who is in that course and learned that class is also more than 75% women.

This has me wondering, what’s going on here?

At Legal Help Centre, we work with social work practicum students as well. There is no question but that social work is a profession dominated by women so it doesn’t strike me as odd that most of our practicum students from this discipline are women.

But law is different, isn’t it? The gender gap in law that I am usually advocating to close sees more men in firm leadership and in partnership, and earning more than women in similar positions. While there may be some correlation between the gender ratio for lawyers in access to justice organizations with those in government and in-house positions, that doesn’t explain what I’m seeing in law school.

It strikes me that diversity is as important in this sector of the legal profession as it is in law firm leadership and among the judiciary, if not more so given how many of those served by access to justice service providers are already marginalized and disempowered.

I’m curious – what are you seeing across the country? Is this just an anomaly or is this happening in other law schools as well? Has anyone looked more deeply into the role of gender in law students’ selection of potential career paths? What other factors are at play here?



  1. This is an interesting question. I hope your post generates some discussion.

    This may not be directly on point, but I thought it was worth noting. In 2007, Ontario moved to regulate paralegals in order to enhance access to justice in the province. Today, 60% of licensed paralegals are women, compared to 42% of lawyers. Of the 1,372 paralegals who became licensed last year, 70% were women. And 77% of paralegals under the age of 30 are women. I haven’t been around long enough to figure out why that is, but I think it’s interesting.

  2. Personally, when I summered at an Ontario law clinic, I think the ratio of women to men staff lawyers was 5:2, the director and executive director positions were held by men, with a female intake supervisor. There was one female summer student (me) and one male, plus a male volunteer.

    I suspect the phenomena of women being drawn to access to justice work ties into women leaving traditional private practice in favour of going solo/freelance/moving to in house positions, and as Amanda noted, being more inclined to the paralegal profession – in terms of constructing alternate career paths that are more personally fulfilling and suitable, and flout the dysfunctions of traditional practice.

    I find it predictable that women are more inclined to career paths that engage access to justice, as women have reason to be more attuned to social justice issues on a personal level…and have reason to find the traditional practice of law unwelcoming and not amenable to supporting their lifestyle needs and interests/goals, which would explain a greater interest in opportunities in access to justice related work and organizations.

    I would look to women’s motivation to enter the social work profession and why that profession became female-dominated to explain their interest in access to justice law work, very likely, there are similarities and comparisons to be made.

    What were your motivations in pursuing a career in access to justice? Were they informed in some way by your experience as a woman? Would a male law student be likely to have those same considerations informing his career interests?

    See also: – “what if we stop looking at women’s legal career choices as a failure that needs fixing, a failure to fit the traditional standards of success? What if, instead, we start looking at this trend as evidence of women’s eminently sensible and illuminating response to the state of law practice?…The typical contemporary law firm is nobody’s idea of a good business model, a satisfying workplace, or a solid bet for long-term future success. It shouldn’t surprise us that women abandon this model in droves. The question we ought to be asking ourselves is, why are men sticking with it in greater numbers than should rationally be expected?”

  3. Subtle sexism. No question in my experience women are much more predominant in the A2J discussion than are men.

    But, at the same time, one might opine that there are sociological and perhaps other differences between men and women that make men less likely to have the same degree of empathy and compassion that leads itself towards “doing more for less”.

    For example- when I articled (about a million years ago) my principal was a woman – and it was an interesting experience seeing that – at that point (1985) of the four female lawyers in our city, every one of them were “family lawyers” – which is the predominant A2J focus for the most part now.

    So – is A2J seen as a “female obligation”? Well, firstly, until the past 1o or 20 years, “family law” was largely seen as a “female” obligation – which then, logically, as A2J became more pronounced as an issue, lead to A2J being more of a “female” obligation.

    At the same time, we have a continuing social reality in which, rightly or wrongly, men tend to perceive their “income” as a measure of their value socially and in their relationships to a much greater extent than do women – in my opinion.

    In a 2015 Champman University study examining factors influencing partner choices, some interesting (but not surprising) gender differences arose:

    “Gender Differences: Specifically, the study revealed that men and women differed in the percentage indicating:

    – it was ‘desirable/essential’ that their potential partner was good-looking (M 92 percent vs. W 84 percent),
    – had a slender body (M 80 percent vs. W 58 percent),
    – had a steady income (M 74 percent vs. W 97 percent),
    – and made/will make a lot of money (M 47 percent vs. W 69 percent).”

    One might further suggest that while these differences are reflected in how men and women “report” their own priorities – the PERCEPTION of each gender is probably exaggerated beyond that reality- such that men would likely imagine the importance of their income is even higher to women than women report.

    The net result being that men would be much more likely to see any challenge to their income as significantly reducing their “value” to their partner or potential partner – hence, less likely to value social contribution over return on investment.

    So – complex, and really interesting question that challenges us to examine our own priorities and goals – but, long story short, I think the combination of factors leaves women, without question, in a much more likely position of being engaged in A2J effort.