Miner’s canaries, even in law school

Last spring, HLS hosted a conference to examine why a majority of women students at law schools across the nation receive lower grades, participate less in class and are less satisfied with their law school experience than male classmates.

The conference—co-hosted by three HLS student journals—was planned largely in response to several studies, including one at Harvard, revealing a wide gender gap in these and other areas. More than 200 students, academics and others participated in the daylong conversation about the experience of women in law school. Panelists for the March 10 conference included five law school deans and other experts in legal pedagogy. The group addressed proposed changes to traditional legal curricula, the alienation that many students—male and female—experience in law school and the responsibility of schools to address the gender gap.

“Rather than advocate a particular set of responses to these differences, our purpose was to foster a discussion about the institutional challenges these patterns highlight,” says Sandra L. Vasher ’07, conference chair. The event drew such a large and enthusiastic audience that organizers are planning events to continue the discussion.

HLS Dean Elena Kagan ’86 and the deans of the law schools at Duke, the University of Washington, Brooklyn and Vanderbilt discussed institutional approaches to addressing the gender gap. Edward L. Rubin, dean of Vanderbilt University Law School, noted that the basic legal curriculum at most law schools was developed 150 years ago, at Harvard, when students were all males, and it has remained virtually unchanged since. Vanderbilt is trying to give its curriculum a more interdisciplinary focus that will make it more relevant to women, he said.

During a panel moderated by HLS Professor Lani Guinier, experts in legal pedagogy discussed teaching methods. A survey by one panelist, Bonita London, a Ph.D. candidate in Columbia University’s Department of Psychology, found that the gender gap becomes apparent within weeks of students entering their first year.

An HLS study conducted in 2004 also revealed that the profession’s gender gap is visible even before students graduate from law school. Among its findings: Women were far likelier than men to stay quiet in class. They also gave themselves significantly lower scores in skills such as legal analysis, quantitative reasoning and thinking quickly on their feet, while male students were much more confident of ending up at the top of the class.

Those results didn’t surprise Guinier, who conducted a similar survey of students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She focused on the Socratic method, arguing that it often rewards the most aggressive rather than the most thoughtful students.

Whatever the causes, Guinier says that women are the “miner’s canary” of the profession. “The experience of women in legal education is a potent diagnostic tool to think about how legal education is in some ways not living up to its mission to educate and train a group of committed public citizens,” she says.