Results: HLS Conference Responds to Gender Studies


In 2004, a group of Harvard Law School students announced the results from a gender study that compared the different ways in which men and women experience the law school. The widely-publicized findings, which indicated that men were more likely to volunteer in class, become a member of the Law Review, and receive better grades, were similar to those made at other top law schools, such as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. Yet in the past two years, there had been little institutional dialogue within the Harvard Law community directed at addressing these findings.

But that all changed last Friday, March 10th, when three different law journals (Harvard Journal on Law and Gender (JLG), Harvard Law Review (HLR), and the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (CR-CL)) sponsored an afternoon-long conference entitled Results: Legal Education, Institutional Change, and a Decade of Gender Studies. The genesis for the conference came from a group of current students who wanted to see the HLS community actively engage with the findings of the 2004 study and others that preceded it. According to Jennifer Shingleton, 3L, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the JLG and one of organizers of the conference, the students wanted the HLS study to become more than “another historical document.”

“We wanted to figure out a way in which the study could be used as an actual impetus for change,” she added. The organizers were interested in probing deeper below the surface of the current discussions about gender and law school. Rachel Rebouche, 3L, the editor of JLG and the driving force behind the conference, explained. “We are not taking a specific view, like ‘the Socratic Method is bad for women’, but rather reaching for a more open-ended approach, trying to see how we can address this issue.” The students were also interested in discovering what the results of the study could possibly say about law school in general. “We want to go beyond the ‘add women and stir’ mentality of legal education,” said Rebouche. “Maybe these studies can help us understand why law schools can be resistant to change, and why we keep seeing the same results study after study.”

With these goals in mind, the students on the JLG recruited the two other journals to help them plan last week’s conference. After registration and lunch for all the participants, the afternoon began with opening remarks by Rebouche and Dean Elena Kagan, who then moderated a panel composed of other law school deans from around the country. The four deans invited to participate in the panel were all selected because of their schools’ recent approaches to law school reform. Dean Katharine Bartlett of Duke Law School, Dean W.H. Knight of the University of Washington Law School, Dean Edward Rubin of Vanderbilt Law School, and Dean Joan Wexler of Brooklyn Law School each presented her own school’s efforts to address issues brought up by the gender studies and their attempts at institutional reform.

For example, Bartlett discussed how some of the changes at Duke were inspired by an examination of how the school could better serve all of its students produce superior lawyers – both male and female. Conversations with firms indicated that hiring partners are interested in lawyers who are well-rounded and able to negotiate and work with clients, and not just those who pulled in high grades in law school. To address these concerns, the law school decided to develop a “Duke Blueprint,” which lays out more the progressive and diverse objectives of the school. Among other things, the Blueprint focuses on transforming controversy and conflict into opportunities to for students, professors, and administrators to work constructively with others for the benefit of the community, a value that may be overlooked in traditional legal education. Bartlett states that “students seem to have internalized the themes” of the Blueprint, and this has helped to create a more “positive, inclusive” leadership model – for both men and women.

Rubin talked about the ways in which the law school’s curriculum and structure were archaic – describing it as a liminal experience, like a rite of passage, that had something in common with male bonding rituals. He explained that Vanderbilt is attempting to break out of those ruts and have faculty help redesign the curriculum in ways that make it more relevant to students’ previous knowledge and interests, as well as the actual current practice of law. Vanderbilt hopes this will make all students, including women, feel more connected to the law school experience.

Knight spoke about the unusually positive indicators for women at Washington, and the importance of people in power demanding that women and minorities’ concerns be taken into account. He gave the example of Starbucks general counsel Paula Boggs, one of the only female minorities to have that role in a Fortune 500 company, who pushes pro bono work at every opportunity and demands that minority lawyers work on the company’s accounts. Wexler brought up several important questions, including whether it is really a problem if women do not verbally participate in class. “What we need to think about,” she said, explaining that as a student she did not speak in class often, “is does that mean that there’s a problem, or do they just prefer to learn that way? What happens to them later, as lawyers?”

After a short break, the second panel of the conference convened. It was called “A Conversation Among Experts,” and was moderated by professor Lani Guinier. The four scholars who made up this panel hailed from markedly diverse academic backgrounds, but each addressed the issue of the gender studies and legal education through the lens of her particular area of expertise. Ms. Bonita London, from the Columbia Department of Psychology, spoke about her research of the psychological process by which women may experience perceived cues of gender marginalization differently. Professor Peggy Davis, from New York University School of Law, discussed the multiple types of intelligence which may be lacking in legal education, and how more diverse forms of intelligence can potentially be given greater regard, and helps student become more effective advocates. Professor Lois Schwartz, from the University of California Hastings College of Law talked about her experiences, and the challenges of, trying to incorporate both intellectual versatility and her individual identity into the law classes she teaches. Susan Sturm, Columbia Law School, discussed the law school as a citizen of the larger society, and the ways in which legal reform for women have begun to shift from a “fix the woman” to “fix the institution” mentality.

The students, educators, administrators, and scholars who attended the conference last Friday were exposed to a comprehensive and probing conversation on the results of the gender studies, the actual reforms occurring around the country, and the potential for greater institutional change within the legal education community. Since Harvard’s institutional response has not, as of yet, been fully articulated, it is a conversation we may all hope is only beginning.

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