Not Our Mother’s Law School (A Glimmer of Hope)

by Angela N. Johnson

The article undertaken by students of a gender law course at Chicago-Kent School of Law entitled, “Not Our Mother’s Law School?” is especially insightful because it is an “update” to the 90’s studies and confirms that what was true then is still true now.  Additionally, previous studies have been focused on notoriously “top” law schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, University of California-Berkley), whereas this study takes place at the Chicago-Kent School of Law which is a “Tier 2” law school, and has been for quite some time.  This is relevant because when I had read the previous studies that focused on top law schools in the 1990’s, I began to hypothesize that women’s experiences in law schools were 1) different in the 90’s and more on-par with male’s experiences in the 2000’s; and 2) that women’s experiences at top law schools were different than at law schools outside of the top 20 on U.S. News & World Reports law school rankings.  This study is valuable in that the authors first reviewed nineteen works related to women’s experiences in law school, spanning from 1987 to 2006; many of which I have also read.  This provides the authors with a foundation for comparing the previous works.

Research Question 1: Had women’s experiences in law school changed since Guinier and her colleagues first undertook their study in 1994? 

Research Question 2: Were women’s experiences at Chicago-Kent different than those at more prestigious schools, especially since Chicago-Kent had admitted women since the 1890’s?

Answer: Experiences had not changed, but the performance gap has decreased (when comparing Guinier’s results of the University of Penn study to this study of Chicago-Kent)

Information that I had not yet read elsewhere but found useful include:

  • A study of the University of Texas School of Law found that having a high percentage of women in a law school class surprisingly did not positively affect women’s overall academic performance.  Instead, all success indicates (GPA, top ten percent, Order of the Coif, and Law Review) evidenced significant gender performance gaps (Batlan, et al. 2009, 129, citing Allison L. Bowers, Women at the University of Texas School of Law: A Call to Action, 9 Tex. J. Women & Law 117, 160 (2000)).
  • A recent Harvard survey showed that from 1997 to 2003, male graduates were seventy percent more likely than females to receive magna cum laude honors (Batlan, et al. 2009, 129, citing Id. at 540).
  • A study of Boalt Hall Law School revealed that a majority of women and people of color never volunteered in class and fifty-one percent of women at Boalt felt more intelligent before attending law school (Batlan, et al. 2009, 130, citing Suzanne Homer & Lois Schwartz, Admitted but Not Accepted: Outsiders Take an Inside Look at Law School,  5 Berkley Women’s L.J. 1, 29 (1990).
  • An Ohio study found that the ways in which women were treated in the classroom had such a negative effect that they impeded women’s educational progress (Batlan, et al. 2009, 130, citing Joan M. Krauskopf, Touching the Elephant: Perceptions of Gender Issues in Nine Law Schools,44 J. Legal Educ. 311, 313 (1994). In the same study, close to twenty percent of women self-reported that they had been subjected to sexual harassment while in law school.
  • A study at Brooklyn Law School wherein the school had increased its number of female faculty members and restructured its first-year curriculum to include smaller classes found that though women’s academic performance was comparable to the male students, female students still reported significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, crying, and sleeping difficulties throughout their entire law school career (Batlan, et al. 2009, 131-132, citing Marshal Garrison, Brian Tomko & Ivan Yip, Succeeding in Law School: A Comparison of Women’s Experiences at Brooklyn Law School and the University of Pennsylvania, 3 Mich. J. Gender & L. 515, 516-518 (1995-96)). This finding prompts me to consider what psychological differences in gender exist or whether males are naturally less likely to exhibit or express the same feelings that women also experience. 

According to the authors, previous studies examined law students of the second-wave feminist methodology.  Third-wave feminism, on the most simplistic level, is referring to feminists born too late to participate in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s (Batlan, et al. 2009, 125). One way this impacts the authors’ approach to this study is that third-wave feminist writing is autobiographical and therefore this study is informed by autobiography in that it grew out of the researchers’ own law school experiences as law students at Chicago-Kent who were enrolled in an upper-level seminar course on women and law.  Moreover, the authors realize that “such focus on the individual prompts the question of how third-wave feminism’s autobiographical bend intersects with second-wave feminism’s fundamental premise that the personal is political.  The essence of autobiography is the singular self.  In contract, politics requires a collective” (Batlan, et al. 2009, 127). For example, one author provides as anecdotal evidence “that law schools punish students who exhibit stereotypically “feminine” characteristics – such as empathy, sensitivity, and cultivating interpersonal relationships, even though such qualities are invaluable in “real world” legal practice.  Thus, the very traits our culture inculcates in girls and young women become detrimental when they enroll in law school, where adversarial (and even aggressive) approaches are rewarded, at the expense of thoughtful, contemplative analysis (Batlan, et al. 2009, 135).  In addition to taking a third-wave feminism approach, the authors recognize that an analysis of gender must include masculinity and the way this shapes social construction.  In this they realize that “by neglecting masculinity, other studies have inadvertently re-enshrined men as the neutral yardstick by which to measure women’s achievements.  In contrast to other studies, we are as interested in how men at Chicago-Kent respond to our survey as how women responded.  Although other gender studies have consistently found that men are more comfortable than women in law school, all of the studies have also found consistently high levels of discontent among men” (Batlan, et al. 2009, 127).

The authors used an internet-based survey which went out to 974 law students; 446 responded anonymously.  Women comprised 53.5% of respondents – an overrepresentation in proportion to their percentage of class size.  A summation of the findings indicates that women are succeeding at rates similar to men, although a small disparity in GPA remains a concern (Batlan, et al. 2009, 139).  These results are in contrast to the findings of gender studies at Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.  Some specifics from pp. 139-141 of the survey are as follows:

  • Women earn slightly lower law school GPAs than men (This is contrary to Clydesdale’s A Forked River Runs Through Law School, where he finds that women earn slightly lower 1L GPAs but higher final GPAs).
  • Women have been over-represented in proportion to their class size on the law review.
  • Men and women participate equally on the Chicago-Kent moot court team – which means women are overrepresented relative to class size.
  • In the past five years, twenty-five students have won inter-school moot court competitions; twenty-two of these students were women.
  • Women were more likely than men to remain silent in class due to “timidity/fear,” while men were more likely to report they did not participate because they were “unprepared” or had a “lack of interest.”
  • Forty percent of African-American men strongly agreed that they felt uncomfortable when speaking in class, while only 5.6% of African American women strongly agreed with this statement.  The authors do not state what the exact proportion of Caucasian men and women who feel uncomfortable when speaking in class, but state that this is a perplexing difference because a majority of women feel uncomfortable speaking in class.
  • Socratic Method: more men than women were “extremely comfortable” or “reasonably comfortable” with the Socratic Method, while women were more likely to report they were “only somewhat comfortable” or “not comfortable at all.”
  • In terms of professorial classroom attention, men were more likely than women to believe that female professors gave more attention o female students. 
  • Men were more likely than women to report that their audience was receptive when they spoke in class.
  • Men and women sought help from professors outside of class at relatively equal rates but reported different levels of doing so.
  • 30.7% of women and 17% of men indicated they felt less intelligent now in law school than prior to attending law school.
  • Confirming Clydesdale’s A Forked River Runs Through Law School, the authors found that students with children had lower GPAs than students without children, but that most mothers had higher GPAs than fathers.

Many of these results prompt several questions.  Are men, by nature, taught to seem “tough” and told to “suck it up?”  Is it at all possible that men, too face similar experiences and emotions but would never let them show – even on an anonymous survey?  Perhaps men are uncomfortable even admitting to themselves that they experience such emotions – perhaps admitting means admitting to failure or making their experiences seem “real.” Or more simply, are men geared to “brush off” these experiences and not fully recognize their feelings whereas women are more self-aware and possess a louder internal “voice?”

In light of the findings, the authors propose several recommendations for change which are roughly similar to recommendations by other previous “second wave” authors:

  • More female professors should be hired, particularly for core first-year subjects.  Sixteen percent of its 1L students had no female professors.  The female:male faculty ratio is important because law students, especially women law students, report they are more comfortable participating in classes taught by women, and they are more at ease approaching women professors (Batlan, et al. 2009, 147-148).
  • The school should implement mentorship programs for female students or even all law students.  The administration could also assign professors to act as advisers to individual students (Batlan, et al. 2009, 148). 
  • Law schools should foster the development of strong women’s law societies because such organizations are conscious and receptive to gender issues and will enable consciousness-raising among the student body.  Students should also develop their own pragmatic groups on campus, such as parenting and support groups.
  • Law schools should employ smaller first-year classes so students are more comfortable volunteering their perspectives. This will also foster student-collaboration, discussion, and in-class activities.
  • Law Schools should also permit students to choose an elective course during the first year – this would allow students to feel less alienated from an education that often employs foreign pedagogy and would allow students to explore subjects of interest. 

As previously noted, I found this study to be an insightful “update” to previous studies which confirmed that women’s experiences are different than the typical male experience in law school but that women are performing as well as, and even outperforming their male classmates.  However, I recognize the danger in self-reported data and the possibility that male students, even in an anonymous survey, may not report experiences that could threaten their own self-view of masculinity.  Moreover, it is possible that because men are told from a young age to “toughen up” that they may be unaware of the emotions they are experiencing in law school – if this is the case, then the disparity in experiences between female and male students is actually less than reported.

Source Citation: Batlan, Felice, Kelly Hradsky, Kristen Jeschke, LaVonne Meyer, and Jill Roberts. “Not Our Mother’s Law School?: A Third-Wave Feminist Study of Women’s experiences in Law School.” The University of Baltimore Law Forum, Spring 2009: 124-151.


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