Carol Simpson

Generation gap or gender gap? Mother and son enroll in law school together

Being an older woman in entering the legal profession has been an interesting experience. It is difficult to determine if my experiences are more a factor of my gender or my age, but I know that my experiences have been significantly different from those of my son, with whom I am attending the same law school in the same class. Having a background as a professor in another professional school dominated by women, I see considerable differences in how women are treated and welcomed to the profession.

The first difference is in how novices are hired and trained. In my previous profession, new trainees are considered on the basis of their training and background. However, in law there is what could be called a "good ol' boy" system. Playing golf, drinking beer, attending sporting events, and being interested in eating large quantities of red meat seem to be necessary qualifications. Most of those activities have little interest for women in general, and I don't see much difference in the women in my law school class. While the analogy of marriage or tenure is often applied to law firm hiring, neither of those comparisons requires such a male-dominated stereotype of what is considered to be "compatible."

The second involves how law students are socialized. It's difficult to generalize here, because I see only one law school's model. Nevertheless, I hear from other law students and lawyers that our experience has been representative. The primary social event, in fact a weekly social event, is what our law school calls "bar review" --a happy hour at a local bar. The same model is used for the local young lawyer's association. The women students are less than enthusiastic about drinking to excess, but we are urged to attend to "unify the class" and to "network." There are few social opportunities sponsored by the law school that would appeal to most of the women, so informal networks develop to satisfy those needs. Some student organizations try to fill the niche, but I don't observe those same needs being supplied through the local bar association or firms for new associates.

Many women law students are urged to go into non-legal careers. The career services staff assumes that women law students won't want to compete at the level that male students would compete. The fact that most of the career services staff are failed female lawyers doesn't help the image that women just can't compete in law careers. However, we are routinely reminded that young associates ordinarily spend 90+ hours a week at work, and such hours would not be appropriate for someone interested in maintaining any type of family relationship. Frankly, the warnings are enough to warn many promising students away from practicing law altogether. Since women are usually primary caregivers, they may elect to give up a law practice before even beginning when they find out that a personal life and a law practice may be mutually exclusive.

Finally, I see public interest law as being the channel to which women are pushed, either through their own curiosity or though the urging of the career counselors. While public interest law is my own choice, I note that able male students are constantly advised to enter prestigious and high-paying firms, and to scratch any public interest itch through limited pro bono opportunities in their firms. The discrepancy of how men and women law students are advised seems suspect in implementation, if not in intent.

Despite the above discrepancies, I'm still positive about my prospects in practicing law. Personally, I don't want the 90-hour-a-week rat race, and have always placed personal satisfaction ahead of monetary rewards. I see at least 50% of my class is female, so perhaps change is in the wind when today's female law students become hiring partners and managing partners. However, if fewer women run the gauntlet at the big firms because of career services' subtle (or not so subtle) pressure, the transition may take longer than my career.

6 Comments

Legal Eagle

What an unusual experience! I am curious about your son's perceptions, in contrast to yours, being in the same law-school class. (Invite him to come post here!) What profession were you in before? I am a little older than the just-out-of-undergrad law students, but probably with much less experience than you. Everything you described as being a turn-off of the legal profession (bar review—my school has that too, BLEAH—and golfing, for example) I agree with you about. So, to address the uncertainty you raise in your first paragraph, I'd guess that at least part of your discomfit with law school details comes from a gender gap, not just an age gap.

Anna Lorien Nelson

<div align=“left”>There's one thing I take issue with in your comments: my career services office is also all-female, but I never thought of them as "failed lawyers" before you put it that way. I'd rather see their successes—they have chosen a life balance and set of professional responsibilities that they prefer to big firm work. They get to see their families and to be mentors to new lawyers. And they are lawyers; realistically they need that JD to be doing what they do. They do a different kind of work than litigators, but then, that's also true of mediators, and in-house counsel, and legislators, and judges, and law professors (okay, so some people wouldn't count them as lawyers either, but I think that's wrong, too). There are many ways to practice law. Labeling our career services personnel "failures" cedes too much to the macho "I can bill more hours than you" ethos of big law.
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ptlawmom

Great article, but the idea that women can/should only go into public interest  if we want to enjoy family life is a rather depressing notion.  If we don't go into law firms and assert our desire to acheive work/life balance, how will anything ever change?  I think that there has been a lot of movement in the past few years on womens' issues in law firms and I'd like to think that if things aren't changing now, they will be in a few years when I'm coming out.  And if they aren't, hopefully I will still be up to the challenge of taking a stand.
http://ptlawmom.com

flea

I disagree both with your "failed lawyer" comment regarding career services employees, which has been addressed by other comments, as well as your assertion that the women in your class don't enjoy Bar Reviews.  In my three years of law school, my friends and I never missed a Bar Review if we could possibly help it and if the SBA (which consisted both male and female students) dropped the ball on planning one, I planned it myself.  I don't see happy hour as a predominantly male activity, by any stretch of the imagination.  I think that's much more a case of a "generation gap."

KHernan881

Agreed it is shocking and judgmental to insinuate that somebody is a failure.
However, the truth of the matter is that most career services officers at law schools are women.  Most (if not all) are JDs that previously practiced law.  All are no longer practicing law - some by choice, and others undoubtedly not by choice.  It doesn't take a JD to be a successful career counselor (or librarian or professor for that matter).  I also recognize that while the JD is a professional degree it is also a door-opener and there are plenty of JDs out there that aren't practicing.
I think the author was just trying to say that these women all set out to be lawyers and, for one reason or another, aren't practicing law anylonger.  That is one definition of failure.  I doubt she is trying to say they are failures as people, as career counselors or anything else that people are reading into it.
Also, I too have zero interest in bar reviews.  I too think that is a generational issue more than gender.

Cass

<div left”>I'd say a fairly equal proportion of men and women scorn the bar reviews at my school - though we tend to do so for financial reasons.  In my experience, those of us who are working our way through school are the ones who pass on bar reviews.   We're also the same students who (whether or not there is any interest) do not golf or participate in other preferred networking events.</div><div><br class=“khtml-block-placeholder” ></div><div left”>Though gender and generation gaps definitely play a part in such social isolation, we shouldn't discount the classism inherit in many extracurricular activities.</div>

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