Gender and Lawyers’ Worklives

As we think about how to improve legal education, it’s always helpful to understand  our students, their careers, and what they value.   UW Law reference librarian Mary Whisner shared this item, that I missed when it initially came out:

Harvard Study: Women Lawyers Work More Than Men,

Bloomberg BNA Big Law Business, May 12, 2015

Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession released the results of a widespread survey of its graduates which suggests women work more hours on average than men, among other potentially myth-busting findings.

Through a survey of HLS graduates from the classes of 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2000 and other research, it provides a detailed portrait of the gender gap within the legal profession, including all the ways women have advanced or failed to advance.

. . .

The study also finds the women graduates satisfied  with the substance of their work, but dissatisfied with their compensation, while the reverse is true for men.

The full study (86 pp.) is David B. Wilkins et al., The Women and Men of Harvard Law School: Preliminary Results from the HLS Career Study (2015).

Would these findings about Harvard Law grads would hold true for lawyers generally.  If so, are there any implications for legal education?

Here’s one speculation:  Perhaps men experience more cultural push towards financial security and success in the form of work in Big Law. They might also experience less cultural encouragement toward emotional self-awareness, introspection about purpose in life,  and a service orientation. If so, the result might be that more men focus on external motivations and pursue the Big Law path,  even when it’s a bad fit with their interests, skills and values. They then find themselves less satisfied with the substance of their work. (And, given gender myths about women’s lesser commitment to the workforce, the men might be able to meet expectations with fewer hours.)  If so, legal education would be well advised to improve efforts to help students develop their professional identify, focusing both  on developing students understanding of lawyers work in different settings, and on students’ own talents, interests and values.

Another speculation:  Perhaps women tend to be less confident about the quality of their work and log more hours as a result.  Legal education could help them appreciate their own talents and skill level.

Other thoughts?

2 Responses

  1. The disparity in job satisfaction and experience in legal education is always an interesting topic; thanks for raising this. Examining what people value and why is endlessly fascinating as is speculation about the role cultural prompts, job satisfaction, drive toward financial security, and choices about work-life balance have in the gender gap within the legal profession. The Harvard Study referenced in the posting highlights the consequences of that gap, in jobs themselves and in compensation, and reinforces the continued, significant existence of this gap despite decades of study. Because this gap has persisted for decades and shows no signs of closing, I might just focus on equalizing tools.

    Perhaps putting aside cause and motivation, legal education could do more going forward to put women in a better position to bring themselves ahead in the legal profession by taking the data at face value and making some pragmatic choices. For example, another interesting Harvard study – this time from the Harvard Business School suggests there is nothing lacking in women’s negotiating skill or confidence levels to explain job condition differences; the study instead posits that women and men are perceived differently depending on whether they speak for themselves or speak for others. The study concludes that women who negotiate for themselves are simply not perceived as well as women who negotiate on behalf of others, whereas men are perceived equally either way. Regardless of whether this disparity itself should be addressed, an inference to be drawn from this study is that women may need to learn how to negotiate with a strategy that takes into consideration their counterparts’ perception. And, negotiating tactics is something law schools can teach. In fact, in many cases, women need to be reminded to ask at all.

    For decades, studies have reported that men and women “experience” law school differently. The studies that seem to have the most bearing on student success are those that examine the extent to which students participate in class and the nature of that classroom participation as well as the extent to which students engage with faculty. Putting aside any reason any person may have for not participating – the fact remains that being actively engaged in the class makes a significant difference in law school success whether for the metacognitive reason that people learn better when they have to work to retrieve memories in new contexts or for other reasons. Further, faculty-student relationships, in addition to providing one-on-one assistance, and guidance for student publications, are also an initial source of mentoring and even sponsoring for students that may open employment doors after law school.

    Not all class participation is equal, especially in the volunteer only system. The Yale Study set out data that supports what many of us have observed – the person who speaks too much may not be right; not everyone is inclined to volunteer, and some people may feel dissuaded from volunteering. The study observed that cold-calling produced the least gender disparity in classroom participation. The study also concluded that after cold calls, men and women participated relatively equally in the open discussion. We can work with this. Faculty wishing a “warmer” cold-call, have several methodologies at their disposal from rotating cold-call student panels to individual random numbers.

    So, if we could have just two tools to be used for greater law school success and perhaps better job satisfaction, those two tools would be negotiating skill and classroom participation – knowing when and how to actually speaking out. And, we can teach those skills, starting in the first year. Regardless of whether we can modify cultural norms, model appropriate behavior, mentor, or sponsor people, we can teach negotiation strategies, and we can encourage and teach appropriate law school participation.

    By: Professor Pamela Armstrong, Albany Law School (

    • Thanks for the insightful observations. Your observations about cold-calling bring memories of the Andy Walkover strategy, named after a deceased colleague who shared it with me: Tell students that if they are terrified of being called on they should talk to you privately and you will work with them to overcome their fear. Then plan with them for the first and second times you will call on them. For the first time, tell them both the question they will be asked and the answer; the second time, the question only. After that they are on their own..

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: