Volume 20, Number 1
On the Road to Esq.: Women in Law School
By Linda Wightman
Women's journey to find equality in a profession that is traditionally male dominated has involved two significant hurdles: surviving in the previously male-dominated law school environment and transitioning from school to the profession.
The presence of substantial numbers of women in legal education-a full 50 percent of entering classes-is a fairly recent phenomenon. Although a few individual women broke the barriers to entry to the legal profession in the late 1800s, noticeable numbers of women did not achieve admission to law school until the 1970s, and even these low percentages rose dramatically during the next 30 years. In 1972 women comprised 7 percent of conferred J.D. degrees, compared with 47 percent of those conferred in 2001.
Despite these impressive gains, questions about the equality of women as students and as members of the profession continue. Doubts about equality in law school focus on whether the law school environment is inhospitable to women, typically citing as evidence differences between women and men in academic achievement and recognition. Suspicions related to equality in the profession focus on whether women have equal access to jobs and promotions, particularly at the more prestigious law firms.
Past research on these questions has produced mixed or inconclusive findings, ranging from an unsurprising discovery in 1988 that more women than men reported "seldom or never" volunteering in class, to two studies, a decade apart, that noted women's lack of participation and attributed it to "alienation." The second of these two studies analyzed data from 20 women in the class of 1997 at Yale Law School (Gaber 1998) and reported results nearly identical to those found in the earlier study.
In 1994 Lani Guinier, Michelle Fine, and Jane Balin reported dramatic findings about the impact of the law school environment on the academic performance of female law students. Of women and men who entered law school with identical academic credentials, men were three times more likely than women to be in the top 10 percent of the class at the end of the first year of law school-a trend that was sustained during the three years of law school. A 1996 study this author performed found that the grades earned by women after the first year of law school were lower than predicted by their undergraduate grade point average (UGPA). In contrast, grades earned by men slightly exceeded grades predicted by their UGPAs.
According to a 1994 ABA report, "many of the entry-level employment gaps between women and men are being closed, particularly for white women law graduates." However, women of color have not fared so well. Data for first jobs for nonwhite women reveals that they enter government service at twice the rate of white women and men. Similarly, women of color enter public interest law at twice the rate of white women, and nearly five times the rate of white men.
Two primary themes dominate research about women and the legal profession-academic performance and career aspirations and opportunities. Selected data from a National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study sponsored by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) in 1998 were reanalyzed to determine whether specific characteristics of a law school played a role in producing different levels of academic achievement, career aspirations, and expectations of women. The study sorted 155 law schools into three categories, using LSAT scores of the entering class as the variable. To examine whether women of color are not making the same gains as white women, the data were analyzed separately for four groups of women-white, black, Asian American, and Hispanic, as well as separately by category.
In order to make meaningful comparisons between women and men, law school GPAs were compared first only between women and men who had identical UGPAs, and again between women and men who had identical LSAT scores. These data showed different patterns across the three law school categories and across the different ethnic groups.
Data conditioned on UGPA comparing first-year law school grades of white women to those of white men show that, in the Category I (top) schools, grades were not as high for women as for men, although they had had similar undergraduate grades. This pattern is consistent throughout the UGPA score range. These differences were not found in Category II or Category III schools. A similar pattern was found when grades were conditioned on LSAT scores, although there were no differences between women and men at the very top of the LSAT score scale, even in Category I schools.
These data may explain why the academic performance differences found by Guinier and her colleagues were not replicated in other studies. The patterns of differences between white women and men were generally followed within every ethnic group except blacks; these women earned grades as high or higher than men regardless of law school category.
Two additional measures of law school achievement-graduation rates and bar passage rates-also were examined for differences between women and men. The data show that within every ethnic group and across law school categories, women graduate at the same rates as men, or higher. Women also pass the bar at approximately the same rates as men. However, the data also evidence that the specific law school a student attends may significantly affect performance on these measures. Both graduation rates and bar passage rates decline with decreasing law school category for women and for men within each ethnic group. And these differences are larger than the differences between women and men within each ethnic group.
Students ranked the appeal of a variety of work settings on a scale of 4 (very appealing) to 1 (very unappealing) several times during their law school careers. From the very beginning of the first year, differences between women and men were apparent with respect to career goals. Men consistently rated working in a law firm more appealing than did women; women rated government settings and public interest work as more appealing than did men. Students also were asked at the beginning of each year of law school to identify the environment in which they were most likely to work once they graduated. The results were tabulated for women and for men, and, separately, by ethnic group for women.
Response patterns for women and men across the three law school categories show not only differences between white women and men but also among the categories for both. For example, a higher proportion of both women and men from the top schools expected to work in a large firm. Initially a higher proportion of men than women within each category believed they would work in a large law firm, but by the third year of law school, those differences disappeared. The largest proportions of students expecting to work in a small firm attended Category III schools, and the smallest attended Category I schools. Within school category, no differences were found between women and men during the first year. By the third year, the proportion of men exceeded the proportion of women. Overall, the differences among categories exceeded the differences between women and men for all work settings.
Data relating only to women do not show consistent patterns of career expectations among the different ethnic groups. The proportion of nonwhite women choosing government settings tends to exceed the proportion of white women in every school category, and that proportion increased dramatically between the first and third year of law school for black women who expected to work in a government setting. These data are consistent with the findings reported by the ABA Commission. However, other data suggest that women are not simply "settling" for these positions in response to a lack of other options; the settings were rated as "appealing" or "very appealing" from the beginning of law school. Continuing research is necessary to uncover whether women favor work in government and public interest settings because the work is inherently more interesting or more valued by them; because they are proactively rejecting environments in which they perceive that they have little chance of equality and success; or because they're not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve the prestige and status offered by the large and midsized law firms.
Study results suggest that women from the most elite schools not only expected to pursue more lucrative and prestigious careers but also had less initial interest in the alternatives. The proportion of women who expected to work in small firms also rose consistently during three years of law school for women attending second- and third-tier schools but not for women attending the top-tier schools, regardless of ethnic group. Almost no women from the Category I schools expected to practice solo, and very few from the other schools expected to do so. A consistently higher proportion of women of color than white women expected to practice solo.
The study suggests that the underperformance of women in law school may be limited to women attending a small number of elite law schools. Overall, the data show that women who entered law school in fall 1991 did hold their own academically when compared with the men in their class. The findings, however, do not address the psychological effects of studying and competing in that environment, or how well women might perform in a more hospitable environment. Evidence of women's academic achievement relative to men in other educational environments suggests that women could and should be doing better.
One hope is that as women show that they can indeed hold their own when playing by the current rules, their voices for change will gain greater credibility. As the number of women graduates continues to increase, the number of women in faculty positions and positions of leadership in the profession can lend support and momentum to address these questions.
1L & Female: Survey Sez…
First-year law students who responded to a survey sponsored by the Law School Admission Council and conducted by Linda Wightman, Women in Legal Education, revealed the following similarities and differences between men and women:
l Expectations. All women rated the level of difficulty of the coursework significantly higher than men, while both black and white women rated the amount of study time required significantly higher than black and white men. Each group found the law school environment as supportive as they had expected it to be.
l Competition. White women rated the competitiveness of their classmates, compared to their expectations, significantly higher than did white men. Compared to men in the same ethnic group, only Asian American and white women reported spending significantly more time than men attending class. Consistently across every ethnic group, men reported significantly more re-creation and relaxation time than women.
l Studying. Very few differences were reported between men and women in the amount of time spent on various study activities.
l Writing Skills. Women come to law school with stronger writing skills than men and report significantly less difficulty with basic writing style and grammar skills for first-year writing courses. In contrast, women reported more difficulty with analysis required for legal briefs. The differences were statistically significant only between white women and men and Hispanic women and men.
l Academic Self-Concept. After the first year of law school, men rated themselves significantly higher than women in all academic areas except writing ability. Parallel data suggest that the lower self-concept reported by women was present before the first year of law school.
l Discrimination. Not surprisingly, experiences of discrimination due to gender were reported as significantly different for women. Black women reported significantly more discrimination than black men due to ethnicity,
l Employment Expectations. At the start of law school, a larger percentage of women than men expected to work in a public interest setting and a larger percentage of men expected to work in a large law firm.
l Overall Findings. In most in-stances, the differences among groups of women exceeded the differences between women and men. The law school experience is generally more difficult for women of color than for white women. The most outstanding differences were observed for black women, who are less satisfied with their decision to attend law school than are any other group of women; Asian American women are significantly less satisfied than white women with their decision to attend law school.