Christine Mathias

Public interest practice is a wellspring for reform of the entire legal profession

The old saw that "law is a conservative profession" is no excuse.

Upon entering the legal profession, I am acutely aware that women are in the minority. This is based on the number of women I've seen at my school and in my limited legal experience, as well as the treatment towards women and women's attitudes in the field. There are double standards for women, and women are often reluctant to address this. Starting from law school, it seems that women are more apprehensive to discuss the topic of law at all. Law school rewards confidence and aggressiveness, it seems, and unfortunately these traits are often more pronounced in men at school. However, the field of public interest is, in a lot of ways, contrary to corporate law and public interest carries a different set of attitudes towards women in the legal field. Public interest, as a result, is a more desirable field for women to be in, for a lot of reasons, and may be the source of change that is so desperately needed.

While the number of women in the field may be increasing, women's voices in the classroom, a lot of the time, are not. Quite simply, men in the classroom raise their hands and offer their opinions more than women do. For many, the classroom in law school is an intimidating experience as a result of the Socratic method and the highly difficult material we navigate. It is the most aggressive students who raise their hands and are not afraid of being wrong. In this sense, the law school classroom is reminiscent of grade school, where the boys notoriously volunteer to speak in the classroom more than the girls. If the classroom was not such a hostile environment, there possibly could be a different result, but the tradition is reluctant to change. When women's voices are not heard, there is little female perspective, and essentially no reflection on what it means to be a woman in the legal field. After a year of law school, I have heard very little discussion on this topic. This means that many women in the field may be apprehensive to approach the subject of unequal treatment in the legal field, and often don't take time to notice signs of such.

I am also constantly made aware that the field of law is a conservative field. This applies to dress, interactions with coworkers, and even political attitudes. Professors do not often discuss the treatment of women in the occupation, and at this point, I can only come to the conclusion that there would be a conservative attitude towards women. I know already that women are expected to wear skirts to interviews. This double standard for dress was initially a shock, but something vastly accepted. When I questioned it, the knee-jerk response was that law is a conservative field. As this is an accepted excuse for a double standard of dress, it leads one to wonder what other standards of behavior could be justified. Fewer women hired? Lower pay? Where is the line drawn? These questions are not answered in the classroom, and women seem reluctant to address them outside the classroom.

However, my short experience in the field of public interest has proven that the entire field of law does not have such a conservative attitude. I attended a two-day public interest conference where I discovered that women easily out-numbered the men, and women aggressively attacked the issues at hand. I have to wonder why there are so many more women represented in the field of public interest. One may argue that women are more drawn to public interest, just as women are more likely to be vegetarians, because they identify with the unrepresented and often silenced members of society who do not have the privileges awarded to others. Another possibility is that women are more comfortable in such an environment, where instead the field of public interest is notoriously liberal. Without the conservative defense to unequal treatment, women are empowered in such work. A final, more pessimistic, possibility is that women take public interest jobs because they could not find work in the more conservative corporate field and have settled for the lower-paying job that would accept them. It could well be a combination of all three. In talking to these women, it is clear that they are often driven by compassion, a compassion that is confidently expressed in the environment of public interest.

From sitting in the classroom, to receiving advice from the career services department, to my brief experience in the field of public interest, there is no doubt that this is a conservative profession, and this fact has negative ramifications on a woman's place in the field. While this makes me slightly wary to enter the legal field, it mostly angers me. This anger gives me energy to get through my education and stay focused during the most stressful times. I am leaning towards public interest out of compassion, and also because I feel I will be surrounded with like-minded people who are also angered by this condition. It is my hope that change will come from within and I will find others to band together with to make it happen. Ideally, public interest will be a source of change to the conservative environment that is so stubbornly a part of corporate law. Clearly there has been a vast change in a woman's position in the field over the years, considering the number of female law students and lawyers, but we're not there yet.

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