Gendered Experiences in Law School Fade in the 2L and 3L Years

by Angela N. Johnson

Contrary to similar studies undertaken in previous years, Claire Schwab’s “A Shifting Gender Divide: The Impact of Gender on Education at Columbia Law School in the New Millennium” purports women’s experience in law school isn’t 180 degrees different from male students, rather it just isn’t a “gender-neutral one” (Schwab).  While other reports have indicated a radical difference in law school experience based on gender with an assumption that the disparity remains through all three-years of law study, Schwab discovers that most struggles in law school are felt by both male and female students and that experiences are largely the same with smaller varying degrees of differences felt by women students.  Further, any differences felt by 1L women law students are diminished in the 2L and 3L years.  Schwab argues that the experiences of women law students are first and foremost that of a first year student (of any gender), and only secondly that of a woman.  Surveys revealed that the same difficulties that plague female law students also concern male students; this “common nature” of the same concerns among both genders highlights the idea that women do not altogether survive an alternate or differing experience than their male classmates. 

Schwab’s study was undertaken at Columbia University in the spring of 2002.  The data was obtained through student and professorial questionnaires which were distributed randomly by selecting from an alphabetized directory every sixth person in each of the three law school classes (1L, 2L, 3L).  However, the overall response rate was approximately 24%. While this may at first seem troubling, the sampling comprised an equal representation of the law school’s demographics (51% of the respondents were women and 49% were men).  Columbia, like the school in a similar study (“Why Legal Education is Failing Women” -Yale), is a top law school.  Columbia is dissimilar to Yale, however, in that the 2003 entering class at Columbia was comprised of 51% women and 56% in 2004.  Comparatively, women comprised 47% of all law students nationwide in 2003 and 2004.   A the time Schwab wrote the article in 2003, she predicted that women would represent a majority of law students nation-wide in the coming academic year; sadly, the figure has remained close to 47% (and even declining to 46% in 2009).  At the time of this study, the legal profession was comprised of over 30% females (Schwab 318).  Identical to the research conducted for “Why Legal Education is Failing Women” (herein, the “Yale survey”), Schwab’s questionnaire results revealed that “in both large and small courses, first-year women were nearly three times more likely than men to report that they “never” or “rarely” volunteered in class” (Schwab 320). However, where this study differs is that “by the second and third years, this disparity had disappeared, with reported participation nearly equalizing.  Responses in small 2L and 3L classes had in fact reversed, with more men than women indicated that they “never” or “rarely” volunteer” (Schwab 321).  As far as volunteering to participate in class, “1L females were nearly seven times more likely than men to be dissatisfied and 2L females were just over six times more apt to be so, by third-year this had entirely dissolved with 3L female students being two times more likely to be content than males” (Schwab 322). However, reasons for volunteering remain common among male and female students; 92% of female and 95% of men stated that “personal interest in the subject matter” prompted them to voluntarily participate in class; 96% of women and 83% of women reported “level of personal preparedness” as a factor (Schwab 322).  Not surprisingly, 71% of female students found a “casual and friendly classroom environment” to be highly significant in terms of the style of classroom they were more likely to volunteer whereas only 30% of men found this important. 

In the Yale study, researchers believed that women were less likely to volunteer in class due to an apologetic feeling of not wanting to take classroom time away from other students.  Schwab’s research largely proves this theory: The “silence of other students” was a factor for voluntary classroom participation for 2/3 of the female students and just 1/4 of male students (Schwab 323).  Schwab cites the well-known 1994 University of Pennsylvania study, “Becoming Gentlemen” in her analysis of classroom environment and more specifically, the Socratic Method.  According to Schwab, the “Becoming Gentlemen” study revealed that women were “more likely to feel “alienated” and “delegitimated” by the Socratic Method, reporting much lower rates of class participation than their male counterparts for all three years of law school” (Schwab 316).  Contrary to the “Becoming Gentlemen” study, Schwab finds that “Ninety-two percent of women indicated that either “‘[This style of teaching] does not bother me at all/I like it’ or ‘Although it flusters me, I see the merits.’  Ninety-one percent of men expressed the same sentiment.  Respondents were, then, overwhelmingly in favor of the continued use of the Socratic Method in legal instruction” (Schwab 323-324). Identical to the Yale study, the female respondents (80%) in Schwab’s study reported consistently lower rates of faculty contact than male respondents (43%) in all three academic years (Schwab 324). 

In sum, Schwab’s study reveals a persistent gender disparity in legal education with women participating less in class, engaging professors more infrequently and internalizing the difficulties in law school more intensively than their male counterparts.  However, this study reveals that the law school experience becomes largely normalized over the years for both men and women. The analysis of upper-level law students is a key component of this study that is not contained in the Yale study or the Law School Student Engagement Survey (both of which focus primarily on first year law students or all law students without taking into consideration grade-level).  According to Schwab, “It is in the first-year, just when traditional legal methodologies are strictest, that this classroom ideal is most challenged, with smaller classes and a casual and friendly environment being more allusive” (Schwab 333). Acknowledging that a “casual and friendly environment” and apparent approval of the Socratic Method do not seem to go together, Schwab suggests that the “mutant” form of the Socratic Method which is more commonly employed at many law schools is not one and the same as the traditional form.  In other words, the Paper Chase style in which students are drilled for hours and often forced to stand in front of the class is rarely imposed (my comparison, not Schwab’s).  In closing, Schwab states that “While the gender divide has shifted . . . it has not dissolved.  It is clear that equal access does not mean equal opportunity” (Schwab 337).

Source Citation: Schwab, Claire G. “A Shifting Gender Divide: The Impact of Gender on Education at Columbia Law School in the New Millennium.” Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems (Spring/Summer, 2003): 299-337.


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