Women in Legal Education: A Comparison of the Law School Performance and Law School Experiences of Women and Men
Linda F. Wightman

Introduction

It was not long ago that law was openly proclaimed to be a man’s profession and that women were a nonsignificant part of the profession as well as of the legal education world that provided preparation for the profession. In the last 25 years, the number of women who receive Juris Doctor (J.D.) degrees has risen dramatically, with women representing approximately 7 percent of the degrees conferred in 1972 compared with 43 percent of the degrees conferred in 1992. Though women have made tremendous strides in increasing their physical presence in legal education, several studies suggest that women continue to feel alienated and estranged in this once exclusively male' environment. In support of this suggestion, the literature presents an array of both quantitative and qualitative attempts to investigate issues of law school performance, law school satisfaction, and law school experiences among women law students. Many of those studies have had limited impact as a consequence of their small sample sizes, the sample bias that often results from self-selection of the sample, or their reliance on anecdotal evidence.

The study reported here responds to some of those criticisms. First, the current study draws its data from a national longitudinal sample of students who entered a law school J.D. program in fall 1991. The national representativeness of the sample, as well as the extraordinary response rate to the questionnaires used in this study, provide a unique opportunity to re-examine many of the questions and/ or hypotheses that have been raised in studies limited to a small sample or a single school. Additionally, the present study gathered data that allow for exploration of some areas of gender differences in legal education that have not previously been presented.

The current report is derived entirely from empirical quantitative data. One weakness may be that it is lacking the richness that could be added by case study reports or anecdotal evidence to supplement or explicate the findings. The hope is that the findings presented in this report might in some instances lend credibility to the hypotheses and conclusions generated in the smaller and more qualitatively based studies, while in others, the strong quantitative data that run counter to the anecdotal data or evidence from other studies may lead either to renewed study of the issues or to alternative interpretation of these data.

The goals of this study are twofold. The first is to provide data on a national basis to examine issues of gender differences in legal education that heretofore have been studied primarily on a small scale or within individual schools. A related goal is to explore a variety of factors in addition to the traditional predictors in order to expand the definition of background characteristics and other variables that might be related to future academic performance in law school as well as overall satisfaction with law school. The interest is in identifying those relationships that might be different for women than for men.

The study is comprised of four areas of inquiry. The first focuses on issues of women’s academic performance in law school. The summary data examining first-year grades are consistent with several statistically based studies showing that overall women seem to hold their own in law school, although the data in this study show that on average women are earning slightly lower grades than men. In addition to providing national data that parallel the efforts of smaller scale single school studies to look at the straightforward question of how well women perform in law school, especially when compared with men, this study also attempts to view performance from a different perspective. That is, other studies look at how well women perform by examining first-year grade-point average (FYA), class rank, or academic honors such as election to Order of the Coif. This study attempts to put that performance in some perspective by examining how well women should perform given their own history of past academic performance.

Second, this study compares a variety of aspects of the first-year law school experiences of women with those of men, but it does so separately for selected racial! ethnic groups to help sort gender differences from racial! ethnic group differences. The report begins with data that describe background characteristics and student attributes at the time of entry into law school. Next, specific first-year experiences and perceptions about those experiences are examined. Lastly, issues pertaining to work experiences and career goals are summarized.

The third section of the report examines experiences, perceptions, and background characteristics of those women whose law school academic performance most exceeded expectations based on prior academic performanee (quantified as undergraduate grade-point average [UGPA]. These women are contrasted with women who most underperformed academically based on the same predictor.

The final section parallels the analyses of women who performed better and worse than predicted for a similarly drawn sample of men. These analyses allow for some cross gender comparisons to accompany the comparisons between the most extreme performance groups within gender group.

Although together they form a complementary study of women in legal education, each of these areas of inquiry constitutes a mini-study that could stand alone. For that reason, each is presented as a separate chapter in this report, and a summary and discussion of the empirical findings for each area are included at the end of each chapter. Although the research questions and analytical techniques are unique in each of the last three chapters, all of the data are drawn from the same database—the LSAC Bar Passage Study data for the class that entered law school in fall 1991.

Women in Legal Education: A Comparison of the Law School Performance and Law School Experiences of Women and Men

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