Tag Archives: Harvard Law School

My useless law degree

My Harvard Law School diploma is hanging in my basement, framed, just above my sewing table. When I used to sew, back in those halcyon days of ample free time before I had a baby, I would sometimes glance up at my diploma and think, “Huh.” Then I’d go back to sewing and forget about it, at least until I looked up again. The truth is, that diploma (and the degree it represents), which I spent three years and many tens of thousands of dollars earning, is now pretty much useless. I suppose it looks nice (not that anyone ever sees it, since, as I mentioned, it’s in my basement), but I’m certainly not using it for anything. And you know what the weird thing is? I’m totally okay with that. I wasn’t always. But I am now.

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When I graduated law school, lo these many years ago, I was pretty proud of my sparkling new J.D. degree. For one thing, that degree (and my subsequent passage of the California bar exam) was my ticket to gainful employment in the D.C. office of a large, international law firm. That degree ensured a smooth, uncomplicated path of long-term employment as an attorney, if I was willing to stay the course. Also, like it or not, my degree said something about me. At a bare minimum, it told people the following two things about me: I attended a prestigious law school, and I did the work required to graduate from that law school.

But there are also other assumptions about me that are baked into my Harvard Law School degree, I think: that I’m ambitious, that I’m smart, that I am the type of person who can make it in a tough, competitive environment. So, when people find out that I’m not practicing law (or doing anything law-adjacent, for that matter) and that I don’t plan to ever return to the law if I can help it, they’re surprised, and maybe — just maybe — a little bit judgmental. Now, it’s entirely possible that I am projecting my own insecurities about my career choices onto other people. It could be that no one gives a fig that I’m not using my J.D. to do lawyer stuff. But when I tell people that I’m no longer practicing law, I feel like they’re all wondering why I’d waste a perfectly good HLS degree to try to hack it as a writer. I used to worry about this more, this concern that people might be judging me for letting my lawyer skills go fallow as I try, unsuccessfully, to get a novel published. But as time goes by, I care less and less. This, I’m sure, is a good thing.

When people ask me what I do now, I always say that I’m a writer, period. I rarely mention that I’m also an attorney, barred in two jurisdictions, because it doesn’t seem relevant to who I am, professionally, today. But when I first left lawyering for writing three years ago, when people would ask what I did, I would always mention the fact that I was an attorney, too. I suppose I felt compelled to let people know that I was a serious person and not some artsy-fartsy weirdo sitting around writing stream-of-consciousness essays while staring moonily out the window, or whatever non-writers think it is that writers do all day.

Back then, telling people that I was a writer without also mentioning my lawyer bona fides felt inadequate, incomplete, and perhaps a little false, as well, since while I do write professionally, I’m certainly not making a living at it, and might never do so. I used to feel that to be taken seriously as a writer, I had to bolster my credentials by letting people know that I once had another professional life, one that involved wearing blazers and using two computer screens and writing on stationery with my name and my firm’s name emblazoned on it. I had a serious, structured, lawyerly life, and I left it for something completely different. I wanted people to know, though, that I was still that serious person, with serious ambitions, but I was channeling all of that seriousness into writing.

I don’t know why I cared so much about people’s impressions, mistaken or otherwise, of my career path, but I did. Maybe it was because I didn’t think people would take me seriously as a writer if I didn’t prove to them that I used to hold a prestigious professional services job, as if the two things are connected. In any case, I worry about this less now, at least partly because I have been writing (and not lawyering) for three years, and writing feels less like a fun lark and more like an honest-to-God career at this point. But mostly, I’m not bothered by the current uselessness of my law degree because I’m happier not using it. I’ve figured out that when my law degree was hanging on the wall of my office at the law firm, it wasn’t any more fulfilling to me than it is now, hanging above my sewing table. Using my law degree to be a lawyer wasn’t nurturing me as a person because, as it turns out, practicing international investment arbitration law was not the right career path for me. Writing, whether or not I am ultimately successful at it, is.

So, I’m at peace with the fact that my law degree is not being pressed into use. I don’t regret getting that degree. I loved law school. I met Al when I was there and we even overlapped for a year at HLS. I had great summer experiences as a pre-attorney. I even grew to love Boston (and that’s saying something). I would never take back any of the choices that led me to getting and using that degree, because all of them were the right ones for me at the time. But life changes, and sometimes you have to course-correct when things start to go wonky. Now, six-and-a-half years after graduating from Harvard, and three years into my career as a writer, I look at that useless law degree with abundant fondness and zero regrets. I’m glad I have it. And I’m just as glad I don’t have to use it.

Sexism and trolling

I wrote a piece yesterday reacting to what struck me as a completely bogus op-ed in the Wall Street Journal hypothesizing that women at Harvard Law School (“HLS”) don’t perform as well as men because Harvard has lower admission standards for women. I am not going to link to that crackpot article again because I don’t want to give the author any more page views than I already have. It occurred to me after I wrote the piece that by responding to the WSJ article, I was feeding into exactly what the author wanted: attention. I reacted to a patently outrageous statement he made, thereby bringing traffic to his site. The author, my friends, is a classic troll.

For those of you who are new to the Internets, a “troll,” according to Wikipedia, is “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” The author of the WSJ post is undeniably a troll. And so are his many readers who flocked to my blog to tell me that I am stupid and wrong and a woman and stupid and wrong. Oh yes, the trolls were out in full force yesterday. So let’s talk trolling, shall we?

No, not this kind.

No, not this kind.

I woke up this morning, read through several insulting comments I received on my blog, perused an article written by a woman I’ve never met impugning my analytical skills (yet offering zero analysis of what I had said in my piece), and felt deflated. It wasn’t that the trolls had convinced me that I was, in fact, stupid, but it was just the fact that there are so many people out there whose first reaction to a piece that they don’t agree with is to launch ad hominem attacks on its author. Rather than engaging with my piece on its level, these people chose to attack me – my intellect, my work ethic, my understanding of statistics, my imagined political agenda – and that’s disappointing. I don’t know why I expect better from strangers on the internet, but I do, perhaps because I wouldn’t dream of going on someone’s personal blog and calling them an idiot because I didn’t agree with something they said. I also would never presume to know about someone’s personal experience if I hadn’t lived it myself.

Not only did these commenters jump on me, but they did it in a particularly gendered way, which is heaped in several layers of irony, given that I had written a post about my experiences as a woman at Harvard Law School, and the principal reaction from the trolls seemed to be: a) sexism doesn’t exist, b) you’re clearly hysterical for even suggesting that it does, and c) you need to accept that women are dumber than men, and any disagreement with that proposition signals that you’re a dumb broad who needs to be shut up. Here are some actual comments I received (not all of them appear on the blog because I started trashing comments that were insulting to me):

“You have a lot of passion, which is commendable, but passion without control and diligence is blind.”

“I was unsure about the WSJ piece before reading your response, but now I’m much more confident admissions standards are lower for women.”

“Sadly, Ms. Green’s response does little to bolster anyone’s opinion of the analytical skills possessed by at least one female HLS grad.”

“You are countering all logic with hyper-emotional political correctness (and when that political correctness fails to win an argument, you are countering it with the old ‘not sure how that’s relevant’). Good grief.”

“Perhaps there would be more female cum laudes and Supreme Court clerks if HLS made more of an effort to screen out students such as yourself who look good on paper but aren’t willing to put in the proverbial 110%?”

These comments all fall into one of the three buckets I mentioned above, but can basically be summarized as: “YOU’RE HYSTERICAL.”

Regarding the first comment, in particular, which contends that I have “passion without control and diligence,” my clever friend Seth responded with the following: “He/she may have a good point. I mean, how have you really demonstrated control and diligence? Merely by high achievements in high school leading to an offer from a college with a low acceptance rate, excelling there and on a difficult standardized test where you most likely were >2 sd above the mean, and then completing three rigorous years at a world-renowned law school which prompted this whole conversation? I mean, I think it’s gonna take a *-*little*-* more than 20+ years of academic excellence to really rate a high score on what, i’m sure, is a very well validated and unbiased instrument to assess control and diligence that the commentator/commentatrix (it’s a word, shut-up) is using.”

Ha!

I really don’t feel the need to justify myself or my choices to these people. They’re trolls. They live under dark Internet bridges and dance for joy when people like me come down to play with them, and I’m not doing it. But, as a human being with emotions, it is a bit of a shock to the system to read one insult after another from complete strangers. But what can you do? Some people are asshats and will always be asshats, and there’s nothing I can say or do to change that. C’est la vie.

I will say, though, that the older I get, and the more bull-crap like this that I encounter on the Internet, the more of a feminist I become. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment where I never thought much about my gender or how it related to my performance in school or my career options. Both of my parents are successful, educated people and they never made a big deal out of my gender. They just believed in me, encouraged me, and pushed me to do my best. And I did. It wasn’t until adulthood, when I started encountering jerks like the author of the WSJ piece and his minions, that I realized that gender discrimination actually is a problem that I should be concerned with, because there are so many people who genuinely believe that women are less capable or less intelligent than men. Honestly, I never thought that people thought this way until they started coming out of the woodworks to let me know how stupid they think I am. The realization that there are people who think I’m dumb, no matter how many prestigious schools I attend or degrees I rack up, was shocking at first, but now I’ve come to accept it as reality. As I’ve engaged more and more with the Internet over the years, blogging and posting on social media, I’ve been subjected to more and more attacks on my intellect by virtue of my gender (remember this?). It’s eye-opening, to say the least.

I suspect that a man who goes out of his way to travel to someone’s personal blog to post uninformed personal attacks on the author is broadcasting more about himself and his own insecurities than he is about the author. Someone who is secure in his own intellect does not feel the need to denigrate someone else’s intelligence. The tired lament that men are somehow subjugated by women’s success – or women’s desire for success – is pitiful, really. What kind of man whines that he is being disadvantaged by women wanting to do better? Pathetic! So I suppose we should all feel sorry for these guys and send them positive, healing vibes through the Internet tubes… But in the meantime, I’m going to keep trashing their comments.

Suck it, trolls.

Women at Harvard Law School

I’m a graduate of Harvard Law School (Class of 2009, last class to have letter grades, represent!), but day to day, I don’t think about my experiences at law school much, now that I’ve completely stepped away (/ run screaming) from the practice of law.

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Over the last week, though, two separate things have made me think critically about my time at Harvard Law School (“HLS”). The first was an interaction I had with a woman who is preparing to leave her lucrative consulting job to go to HLS, not because she wants to be a lawyer but because she thinks it will be an “interesting academic experience” (hint: I think this is a bad idea), and the second was this article in the Wall Street Journal, which a male classmate of mine from HLS posted on his Facebook page, inviting comment from his female HLS friends. I read the article and I had a lot of, um, feelings about it, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate them. So I sat on it for a day and I still felt those same feelings (anger, frustration, righteous indignation), so I thought I’d take a crack at responding to the article here.

First, for those too lazy to read the WSJ article, it was responding to this video produced by the Harvard Women’s Law Association (“WLA”), entitled “Shatter the Ceiling,” which discusses the fact that women, by traditional measures such as numbers of cum laude graduates per year and Supreme Court clerkships obtained, do not perform as well as men at HLS. The video includes interviews several female faculty members and students and they speculate on why it might be the case that women at HLS don’t do as well as their male counterparts. I watched the entire video and much of it rang true to me. Did I agree with every single thing that was said? No. (See, e.g., the student claiming that women are being “silenced” at HLS). But overall, I thought the video was thoughtful and hit on important issues that we should probably be thinking about in a larger conversation about how law school should evolve in order to produce better (and perhaps even happier) lawyers.

The WSJ article, however, calls the video “offensive” and harps on a metaphor offered in the video by one female faculty member, Lani Grunier, likening women at law school to canaries in a coal mine. She said:

“So I think what I would say to you is probably captured by the miners’ canary metaphor–that the women in law school are the canary in the coal mines. So they’re more vulnerable when the atmosphere in the coal mines gets toxic. The canary, because of its different respiratory system, is more likely to start gasping for air, and that’s a sign that the atmosphere is toxic not just for the canary but for the miners as well. So it’s a signal to evacuate.”

The author of the WSJ article, who is apparently quite literal minded, finds this metaphor terribly offensive – how dare this woman compare female students to birds! – and goes on to conclude that, rather than representing a systemic imbalance, female students’ failure to thrive at HLS signals instead that HLS is admitting women who simply aren’t smart enough to keep up with the men. Now who’s being offensive, WSJ?

Let's tell some truth about HLS here.

Let’s tell some truth about HLS here.

I read the WSJ article twice, thinking it was perhaps meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and determined that, in fact, it was not. I got hung up both times on this part:

“The WLA’s hypothesis is discrimination against women. Our hypothesis is discrimination in favor of women. We suspect that in an effort to maintain a near-even sex ratio, Harvard Law holds female applicants to lower standards than male ones.”

First of all, this is the first I’ve heard about Harvard’s struggle to maintain a near-even sex ratio. We’ve all heard over the last five to ten years about how women outperform men in college; even the New York Times wrote about it. So certainly there’s no shortage of qualified female applicants to law school, and surely Harvard isn’t so hard up for women that they’re admitting dummies to make up the quotas.

Secondly, the idea that women at HLS are just dumber than their male counterparts is not only offensive, but also, based on my three years of attending the school, markedly untrue. Let me give you an example from my own experience. Both my husband and I went to HLS; we overlapped for one year and he graduated two years after me, in 2011. I happen to have gotten a higher LSAT score than him (although I’m not sure he knows that – hi, honey), but by most measures, he performed much better than I did at law school. Sure, his graduating class didn’t have the dreaded letter grades that we had, but our experiences were largely the same in terms of challenging coursework, clinicals, journals, etc. The WSJ would look at his cum laude diploma and my plain diploma and conclude that the reason he did better was because Harvard had lowered its standards by admitting me, the dumb girl. But if anything, I looked better on paper than my husband when we each applied to law school, at least in terms of raw numbers. And I suspect this is true for quite a few women at HLS: they were superstars in college or grad school, they’re brilliant thinkers and writers, they are competitive and accustomed to success, but something about the environment at HLS makes them wilt a little. In other words, the problem is with HLS, not with the women. I am struggling to understand why the WSJ finds this proposition offensive. Is it because it admits that women at HLS don’t do as well as men? We have the numbers in front of us. We can see that that’s the case. Or is it because it raises uncomfortable implications about the direction that HLS needs to move in order to guarantee that all of its students – not just half – perform to the best of their abilities?

In the WLA video, some of the women suggest that perhaps the Socratic Method is to blame, that the preferred method of instruction at HLS has a disparate impact on women. I think there could be some value to that hypothesis. I definitely spoke less frequently at HLS than I did in my college classes, and I think I developed some of that reticence to speak after being told, in no uncertain terms by the professors and sometimes by other students, that I was Wrong, with a capital W. I never would have believed this before law school, but I think there is something about the way women are socialized — to second-guess ourselves, to qualify our assertions by tacking on “I think” or “I could be wrong” or “maybe” — that is especially vulnerable to the black-and-whiteness of the Socratic smack-down. But I don’t think that’s the whole issue. Besides, I actually enjoyed my super-Socratic classes, and my proudest achievement at HLS — and I’m going to unabashedly brag here a little bit because I still can’t believe it actually happened — was snagging an A+ in a scarily Socratic constitutional law class. So we can’t put all the blame on the Socratic method itself, although I think it might be worth examining the way that the method is implemented, particularly by male professors.

Indeed, as disturbing as it is to talk about, there’s a fair amount of residual sexism hanging around the hallowed halls of HLS, and it often reveals itself in the ways professors treat their students. I had one professor in particular who was notorious for calling on men and ignoring women in his lectures. Even his tone when he spoke to female students was different: condescending, impatient, annoyed. We all noticed it, even the male students. Then, this professor made his preference official by emailing a select portion of the class at the end of our first year and letting these students know that he’d be happy to write them recommendation letters. Guess what? These lucky stars were almost ALL male. I think he extended his invitation to one woman, out of a class of about forty women! I was shocked when this happened – and grossed out and angry and frustrated. This professor’s actions sent sent a signal to all of his female students who had just slogged their way through their first year of law school: you’re not the rising stars here. Embrace the mediocrity.

And that was one of the weirdest things for me about HLS. I went from being a very high academic achiever to being, with the exception of a few classes, pretty mediocre. I was a solid A-/B+ kind of girl. My grades started to improve as time went on, creeping more frequently into the A range, but the truth was, I wasn’t that upset about not being at the top of my class. I guess I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices that being at the top of the class requires at HLS. After all, I wasn’t trying for a Supreme Court clerkship or any clerkship at all. I wanted to enjoy myself, to go salsa dancing and to parties and to cross-register for Portuguese classes at the College. I wasn’t willing, as some of my classmates were, to hole up on weekends to outline cases or read secondary sources that weren’t assigned by the professor. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to succeed at law school, but I also wasn’t willing to become a bloodthirsty competitor, Paper Chase-style, to make it happen. I wonder if I knew deep down, even then, that a career in the law wasn’t the right path for me, and that I’d look back on my time at HLS with fondness, glad that I took the time to make friends, attend parties, go to the gym, and take trips. How much did those choices have to do with my gender? I don’t know. But I’m glad I had the experience I did.

In any case, we can’t all be Supreme Court clerks. And maybe not all of us want to be. But we all want to succeed, and I think Harvard should take a long, hard look at the reasons women aren’t succeeding as they should (hint: the answer is not “women are dumb”).

What do you guys think?