Women and Law School Revisited

On Behalf of | August 28, 2014 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

Earlier this month, Jeremy Heisler brought attention to recent publications examining the experiences of women in law school today.  Jeremy’s post prompts important questions about women and legal education: Is the experience of women in law school worthy of study?   What does the latest research tell us about that experience?  And how can we ensure that legal education meets the needs of all students, regardless of gender, in preparing them for their careers as lawyers?

One of the publications Jeremy cites is a 2012 report by Yale Law Women that presents findings from a two-year study of gender dynamics at Yale Law School.  Before I graduated from YLS last spring, I devoted the majority of my waking hours to Yale Law Women and to that report in particular.

Titled “Speak Up,” the 93-page study shares quantitative and qualitative data from its three empirical components: classroom monitoring, faculty interviews, and student surveys.  The data show statistically significant disparities between men and women: for example, men are more likely to speak in class, to publish their scholarship in the prestigious Yale Law Journal, to engage with faculty, and to ask professors for help and support.  The report also traces the professional trajectory of recent YLS graduates, finding that men disproportionately secure the most prestigious clerkships following graduation.

These results are striking.  Men and women enter YLS on equal footing, yet something is happening within the institutional environment at YLS that quickly creates a disparity in their experiences and professional outcomes.

I have presented these findings to students and professors and administrators, and at law firm trainings and alumni meetings and academic conferences.  Invariably, the conversation shifts from whether women are failing to whether legal education is failing.  Many express surprise that although legal practice has changed so much in the past few decades, legal education has changed so little.  They question whether the Socratic method remains an effective tool for training the next generation of lawyers.  Most of all, they challenge the notion that any reluctance or apprehension on the part of women to speak up in class translates into shortcomings in the professional world.

The Speak Up report makes dozens of recommendations for addressing the gender disparity – some for law school students, others for professors, and still others for law school administrators.  As Jeremy points out, one recommendation is for professors to reconsider how they conduct their classrooms and whether their pedagogical approach adequately prepares students for their future careers.  This recommendation is not based on the assumption that women are shrinking violets who buckle under the pressure of traditional Socratic questioning; instead, it reflects growing skepticism that the current approach to legal education is the right one.

As a new class of women enters law school this fall, I hope they’ll find the findings and recommendations in the report useful.  The team behind the report believes that addressing gender disparities requires a more nuanced response than instructing women to capitulate to male norms.  It demands a closer look at the successes and failures of our modern system of legal education.  Until then, we hope the report achieves its goal of helping all students thrive within the status quo, without foreclosing the need to critique it.