Ursula Furi-Perry Esq.

One-Elle: Female Law Students in Pop Culture

I admit it: I have a love-and-hate relationship with Elle Woods and what she represents. Law students and recent law grads are shown in several places in popular culture, from movies like Legally Blonde to shows like The Deep End. Undoubtedly, each time, they are depicted as stereotypes: the ditzy sorority girl with oodles of mom and dad’s money; the cunning associate with man-eating prowess; the clunky, insecure new girl who seems to stumble on every work assignment; the activist caught up in her cause and little else.  

Female law students in pop culture can pretty much be grouped into one (or more) of those boxes in any given movie, book or television show. By contrast, all female law professors depicted in pop culture seem to be blessed with just one description: tough-as-nails, bitchy and mean.  

As much as I may not like stereotypes, there are some things that Elle gets right—besides cracking the case at the end, of course. 

Perhaps the most important message of the movie: she realizes, as she evolves, that her happiness depends not on someone else’s definition of success (like having a personal relationship,) but rather success on her own terms—a worthwhile message for any female law student. She also stands up for herself against various people in the movie, from her male professor to female students. She works with determination that’s admirable. She figures out that there is more than one “right” way to study the law, and more importantly, she figures out what method best works for her (even if that means not joining a study group.) 

But there are also some things that Elle gets wrong, and those things can present some valuable lessons for female law students.

First, she starts law school for all the wrong reasons. Following a man to law school only to end up in massive debt after you’ve spent three years of your life in a grueling academic program? Please! As I’ve written many times before, there are many great reasons to go to law school, but there are also some bad reasons to enroll. Whatever your reason, consider law school carefully and make sure you’re going to law school because it’s the right path for you. 

She also equivocates in class, comes unprepared and gets defeated by the professor as a result. If you’re a law student, it’s important that you stand your ground and back up your stance by being prepared for class and drawing on the material that was assigned. I continually hear “disclaimers” from students when I call on them (for example: “This may not be what you’re looking for, but…” or “I haven’t perfected this yet, but…”) If you are prepared, pick the answer you think is right and say it. Then, stand by it. (And while we’re at it, pick an answer that at least sounds smart. Remember the scene where Elle “saves face” in Criminal Law class by proclaiming that she’d “rather have a client who’s innocent?”) 

Okay, so this whole column entry was, of course, done tongue-in-cheek. I’m not here to claim that Legally Blonde contains any groundbreaking revelations about how female law students should behave—it is, of course, fiction. Still, some larger questions lurk among all of this: for example, do female law student characters entice women to go to law school with false expectations of what the program really is like? Do they falsely entice women to go to law school, period? And do these depictions of female law students and recent grads ultimately hurt the professional image of actual women in the profession? 

The public, seemingly, loves to love and hate lawyers in popular culture. To an extent, that comes through in characters like Elle Woods: lovable but far from perfect. Interestingly enough, Elle Woods seems to inspire one of two fairly strong emotions among women lawyers—love her or hate her, as the saying goes. 

For women who are considering law school, though, I say this: it’s essential not to base your perceptions of what law school and law practice are like on what Hollywood shows you. Do careful research before you enroll, and don’t just believe what you see on screen.

Next month on Ms. Prof: My love-and-hate relationship with Elle is nothing compared to my love-and-hate relationship with Socrates and his method. In next month’s column, I take on the Socratic method and, in particular, its implications for women law students and profs.

1 Comments

Ashley Dawn Rutherford Esq.

I loved this post! I too have a love/hate relationship with the Elle Woods stereotype. Early on in law school, I changed my laptop computer bag in for a rolling pink bookbag. (Say what you want, but I was not about to ruin my back carrying 40 lbs of books home every night.) And people used to give me a hard time about it. However, I think Elle Woods also stands from the premise that if you be yourself, whether you are a fashionista or a “serious law student” and you are a hard worker, people will accept you for who you are. As a young woman, I think that the first time I really felt accepted was in law school.

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