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.

hls grad

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?


  • Oh, I had the same reaction to you about the WSJ article – namely, righteous indignation. There was no way that the women I went to law school with were in anyway less capable, less intelligent, or less accomplished then the men we were there with.

    Thankfully, the only true sexism I experienced at law school (or, after law school even) was with respect to the unnamed professor you mention in your response. He was truly insulting and awful and condescending. And his class was the only class I did not try at all in – why bother to do the reading if you will never be called on? Or, if you are called on, your opinion will immediately be discounted in favor of a man’s opinion? And of course, that email going around a week before finals kind of put everything into perspective.

    Still, I think a big difference is just the choices people made during law school and not sexist professors – in addition to social and community service activities, the women I know from law school became very active in law school clinics, on-campus organizations, and topic-oriented law journals. Spending all my time studying or blue booking was an unattractive option to me when there was so much I could do with my new legal skills. Like you, I was just out of honors, but if I had the option to go back, there is no way I would make the trade to get one more A in exchange for any of my clients at Legal Services Center, my experiences organizing a symposium for my journal, or my semester studying environmental law in South Africa.

    • Thanks, Becky, I love this comment.

      I guess I forgot to mention in my original post that I was also busy doing law school-related things that wouldn’t get me honors but were far more fulfilling to me than traditional schoolwork, like the negotiation clinical (with which I got to go to Nigeria, woot!), Portuguese language community outreach with the elderly, ESL tutoring, pre-law tutoring, etc. It wasn’t all getting drunk and going salsa dancing (although that was part of it, of course).

      And yes, that one professor was also the paragon of HLS sexism for me, and I didn’t experience that level of condescension from any of my other professors. However, he certainly set a tone, didn’t he? I think I took that message – that I was mediocre – to heart, to some extent, which is unfortunate. It’s just a shame that he’s not only NOT a good professor (his lectures, oy!), but he actively discourages people from success. Gross.

      Anyway – we’re both happier, healthier people for the choices we made, and I dare the WSJ author – James Taranto – to tell me to my face that I got into HLS to fill a quota. Please.

      • You argued in your piece that “there’s no shortage of qualified female applicants to law school.” You may be correct, but if we’re looking only at the *most* qualified, there is a relative shortage of females as opposed to males, as the LSAT scores demonstrate.

        • Do you have statistics showing LSAT scores for women vs. men who are actually accepted to/attend HLS? Because otherwise, these statistics about overall LSAT performance don’t really get you there.

          • Law schools never provide this exact breakdown, because of the racial, ethnic, and gender disparity in scores. It is a politically incorrect landmine and – as Larry Summers has learned and as Harvard has surely taken note of – no good can really come from feeding the beast. You probably knew this though. If you were really interested in finding out about the approximate breakdown, you might try befriending an admissions person who doesn’t have a politically correct agenda to push.

            Further, Taranto is not suggesting that HLS is “so hard up for women that they’re admitting dummies to make up the quotas”. This is really a straw man argument on which you seem to have based your article. It sounds like he is following the logic that at the tail end of the LSATs – which is essentially an IQ test – there are more men than women. So, yes, it is not only possible but, in fact, likely that at least one (white) dude who scored a 177 on his LSAT was rejected from HLS and a girl who scored a 174 was accepted. Is this “admitting dummies”? No. But it is certainly favorable to the woman.

          • No, I do not have those figures (and I’m fairly confident HLS doesn’t release them, let alone incoming LSAT scores for racial and ethnic minorities).

            But you do allow that women, using “traditional measures … do not perform as well as men at HLS.” If those same HLS women scored as well (or higher) than HLS men on the LSAT, you’d have a stronger indictment of those disparate outcomes.

            So my question to you is: do you support HLS disclosing incoming LSAT scores by gender?

          • Sure, why not? I happen to believe, being a woman and all, that women at HLS probably have similar LSAT scores to their male counterparts. I question, though, whether we should be putting quite so much emphasis on the LSAT – everyone commenting here seems to accept it as the end-all and be-all of intelligence, which is questionable – but sure, I’d be interested in seeing the gender breakdown.

  • By any valid measure, men and women have the same intelligence level, as a group. For example, if you examine IQ scores (without going into what exactly and IQ tests measures other than how well an individual performs on an IQ test,) both men and women have a mean IQ of 100. However, if you measure the variance, you will find that the standard deviation of IQ scores for males is larger, and the difference is statistically significant. That means that males are overrepresented at both extremes. More men have low IQs than do woman, but also more males have high IQs than women. The issue isn’t that men are smarter than women, but if your population is selected from those whose IQ is, say, 140 or higher, you will have more men in the population than women — unless you choose on some other criterion other than high intelligence.

    • That’s the point Taranto makes in his article. I am not sure how it is relevant to what I’m saying here.

      • It is completely relevant to your post. If there is anywhere you’d expect to see stats that are not in sync with “averages”, it would be at a place like HLS (and even more so at much smaller YLS), where most of the students are performing and testing at the very highest level. There are more men than women in the top LSAT bracket (175 score and higher). Of those men, you can be sure they are applying to the top schools: YLS, HLS, and Stanford. So it is not crazy for someone to suggest that men may be smarter there. One would have a tougher time making that claim at a more middling law school, but not at the top ones. 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.

        • And you are utterly failing to engage with my piece on its level. Throwing statistics at me (but not the right statistics) is, I’m sorry, utterly missing the point of my piece. For the sake of argument in this space, I can accept the variance argument, and I’ll even stipulate that it may be the case that in the very tip-top bracket of the LSAT, men are more represented at Harvard than women. I am not sure that’s the case, but it may be so. I would argue that if it is the case, it’s a very small difference, and that the difference in performance between a man who gets a 177 on the LSAT and a woman who gets a 174 should be minuscule. If the difference is not minuscule, then we have a systemic problem.

          I’m assuming you feel strongly about this issue, hence your hissy fit in the comment box. Your assumption that my argument, which is based on my lived experience, is somehow serving a political agenda, is quite telling. What possible political interest could I have in responding to Taranto’s piece, other than to air my own experiences at that institution? Turns out, vsss, that women don’t go around collecting experiences so that they can later throw them in the face of guileless men. We actually live them. Like, as our lives! Believe it or not!

          Finally, you know absolutely nothing about me or my motivations for writing this piece, and I’d appreciate just a shred of a benefit of the doubt. You’re on my blog, responding to a piece I wrote, and yet the tone of your comments suggests that you seem to think I’m a nincompoop. That’s fine, but it’s also extremely telling that, rather than address me politely, you accuse me of being “hyper-emotional” (maybe even hysterical? Was that the word you were searching for?) and illogical, neither of which are adjectives typically used to counter men’s arguments. But whatever. You’re gonna think what you’re gonna think. And if you’re not going to engage with my piece, I’m no longer going to engage with you.

  • Your argument here has shades of the Larry Summers/women controversy. You cite the oft-quoted national statistics about how females perform better in college than males, but clearly that is on average, not at the tails. If there is anywhere you’d expect to see stats that are not in sync with those averages, it would be at a place like HLS (and even more so at much smaller YLS), where most of the students are performing and testing at the very highest level. Your anecdote about how you had a higher LSAT score than your husband doesn’t change that. Look at the number of men versus women who score in the top range of LSAT scores (175 and above). There are more men than women in that bracket. Of those men, you can be sure they are applying to the top schools: YLS, HLS, and Stanford. So it is not crazy for someone to suggest that men may be smarter there. One would have a tougher time making that claim at a more middling law school, but not at the top ones.

  • Supposed you changed/modified the definition of ‘qualified’ to include being willing to put in the long hours, to “make the sacrifices that being at the top of the class requires”? 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%?

    • Right, so I guess I should have been screened out since my priorities were “wrong?” Yikes.

      Also, why are you assuming that I didn’t put 110% into the things I was interested in and cared about? If you look upthread, in my response to Becky’s comment, I talk about participating in clinical work, doing community service, studying a foreign language, and tutoring Harvard undergrads. These activities weren’t going to make me a Supreme Court clerk, but they were deeply fulfilling to me. According to your logic, since my interests didn’t align with those of the people who compete tooth and nail for Supreme Court clerkships (and, by the way, there are only 9 Supreme Court justices, and how many HLS students? Hmm), I should have been denied access to Harvard altogether. The legal world would be an intellectually impoverished landscape indeed if you were in charge of law school admissions, I’m afraid.

      • Personally (and it is just personal, I don’t work in the Admissions Department at HLS), I’m fine with you doing what you want with your legal degree. You paid for it, it is yours to use – or not use – as you wish. If you’re happy with your life and career choice, that’s great, and congratulations.

        But if ‘success’ is defined as the number of clerkships and awards, then a law school isn’t doing anyone any favors admitting students who aren’t interested in pursuing the things that constitute ‘success’… especially if doing so results in statistics that appear as if women are being discriminated against while at HLS.

        • I think we’re disagreeing about what constitutes success. Women and men make different choices, including about how to use their law degrees, and that’s not only okay, it’s a good thing. One of my best friends from law school, a woman, works as a guardian ad litem at a well-known public interest legal organization. I think this is an excellent and worthy use of her Harvard degree, but you seem to think it doesn’t constitute “success” because it doesn’t amount to prestige. At least, that’s how I’m reading your comment.

          By weeding out people like me, who don’t use our law degrees to practice law, and people like my friend, who practices law in a public interest context, and people who use their law degree in other environments in which prestige is not paramount, you end up: a) limiting the number of smart, talented lawyers from top law schools who go on to do public interest/non-traditional legal work, which is undeniably a bad thing, and 2) denying smart, qualified people access to a legal education based on what they plan on doing with that degree three years before they must make any decisions about what to do with that degree. It’s worth noting that many people’s paths change drastically in law school. For example, I thought I was going to do human rights work, and I ended up working at a firm. Speaking practically, it’s impossible to “weed out” people who aren’t going to go on to do prestigious things with their degrees ahead of time.

          And yes, I’m extremely happy with my choices and I’m thrilled to have quit practicing law. But I also loved law school and I’m glad I went. Often these things don’t reconcile neatly.

          • It’s not my definition of success I’m referring to, but rather what appears to be the definition used by those who, in referring to the number of cum laudes, etc. received by men/women, proclaim that HLS must be doing something wrong. My definition of success is that you’re happy doing what you’re doing.

            I was trying (obviously, not too well) to make the point that, IF that is the definition of success, then HLS needs to do a better job of weeding out those who aren’t motivated to attain that level of success… if for no other reason than to insulate itself against claims that it is hostile to women students.

            Since that isn’t something you’d like, you would do future yous a favor by using your soapbox to criticize those using those metrics as the measure of success.

  • “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.”

    Maybe the people who ARE willing to make these sacrifices are mostly male. Whose fault is that? The oppressive law school environment or… wait for it…. human nature?

  • Taranto’s article makes a lot of assumptions without evidence.

    First, he assumes that an IQ test measures anything other than how well a person does on an IQ test.

    Then he says “If admissions were purely meritocratic, the most elite schools would be the ones with the highest sex ratios.” He thinks this is evidence of discrimination “in favor of women.” His statement assumes that an admission based on “merit” would be an admission based only on IQ. I’m pretty sure no one has ever been asked by HLS to submit their IQ with their admission package, and I’m sure HLS considers “merit” to mean many other things than IQ, such as grades, college performance, LSAT scores, and writing ability. All of these can be indicators of intelligence, and there’s no evidence that HLS “holds female applicants to lower standards than male ones” based on these indicators. These indicators are probably more predictive of future career and life success than IQ, and HLS recognizes that.

    He says that “female Harvard Law students perform poorly by comparison with their male counterparts” in terms of grades, clerkships, and law review, but never explains what bearing those indicators have on whether a student becomes a good lawyer.

    He assumes that the Socratic method is the optimal way of teaching a person to become a lawyer (“If you were on trial for your life, you’d want a lawyer who’d gone through such rigorous training.”) and that most women are just not “up to the challenge.” But there’s no evidence that the Socratic method produces better lawyers than another method of teaching law.

    In other words, he’s just looking at a particular system set up by men to favor the way that men think, and assumes without evidence that doing well under this system has anything to do with intelligence, and most importantly, has anything to do with being a good lawyer. If he can’t draw those connections, his article is a pointless piece of crap, which is what it is.

    Based on his shoddy analysis, I’m thinking he’s one of the men disproportionately represented at the bottom of the bell curve. Even if he were a woman, they’d never let him in law school . . .

  • This is a great and very personal post. I think it probably accords with the experiences of a lot of women at top tier schools. One of the things that most interests me is what you say about the socialization point – the “maybe,” “in my view,” and so on that women tack on when expressing their ideas. I think that’s a pernicious and widespread phenomenon, and it likely plays out in the Socratic method more than in other contexts, at least when that’s structured in an adversarial rather than conversational fashion. It might also account for the variance noted in IQ scores. If two groups are separated only by the (aggregated) confidence they hold in their opinions, I would think they would show greater divergence in the group that was more confident–i.e. the confident ones go hell for leather and get it really right or really wrong. But that’s a hypothesis better tested by someone without an allergy to statistical methods.

    If the problem is confidence–and it may be–then perhaps the resolution to the problem is going to be a while coming. The societal change required for both men and women to regard women’s views as equal worth is a slow burn. It’s also worth reiterating that’s a two-sided problem – it’s partly a function of how women are treated by men.

    Finally, on the “willing to make sacrifices” point you seem to be getting unduly hammered on above, it actually seems to me to be a rational approach to a middling rank in class at a good school, male or female. If you’re not going to snag one of the top spots, there’s no point killing yourself to get further ahead in the peloton, particularly not since you’ll all be trading on basically the same HLS brand. I’ve seen that phenomenon repeated in numerous contexts. I can’t be certain it applies to you, but maybe it did.

    • Absolutely. It was a combination of: 1) realizing early on that the sacrifices to my emotional, mental, and physical well-being that were necessary to come in at the very top of the class were not worth it to me, and 2) deciding to pursue my interests rather than chasing prestige. That’s why I ended up doing a lot of clinical work and research and community outreach and language study, rather than trying to get on law review. And I’m very glad I made those choices.

  • Hey 2009! I noticed zero difference between men and women in my class. I did see some statistics showing that women are far less likely to be married 5 years after law school than men are. So maybe it’s possible that women devote more time to finding a mate at law school because they know the tough slog that comes afterward doesn’t leave much time for dating. My general observation of men and women in their 20s, at least in the USA, is that men are much more focused on getting through the entry levels of a career, while women today are more interested in exploring the world. (I spent most of my 20s in South Africa, and among the Americans I knew there, probably 80% were women.) So it’s possible that the difference is explained by your interest in Portuguese classes. Again, that could have something to do with anticipating future commitments such as family, which men may not do as much. But I would agree that the argument about standards being different for men and women seems pretty bogus to me.

    • Hey Joel – I wouldn’t attribute women’s lower performance at HLS to being distracted by dating, necessarily, but then again, I met my now-husband at the beginning of 2L year and did spend a lot of time in Boston with him, rather than holed up in my apartment in Cambridge studying, so who knows. Then again, by my 3L year, he was also a HLS student, and he spent a lot of time with me and still managed to graduate cum laude, so who knows! I think most of it comes down to academic choices, actually. I chose to devote most of my academic time to clinical work, Portuguese, community outreach, research, and electives like European Law, rather than taking the corporate heavy/prestige classes, or participating in a journal, or trying to get on law review. That’s going to affect the “success” factor, and I was fine with that. My goals were not the traditional goals that Taranto seems hung up on: becoming a Supreme Court clerk, graduating cum laude, etc., and I think a lot of women make similar choices. So I think there’s a variety of factors that probably go into why women and men perform differently at HLS. But I’m glad that you didn’t notice any gender disparity in our class – I completely agree! Thanks for your comment.

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