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.
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?
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?