Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reaction to the Reactions to the Yale Law Women's Speak Up Report

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Strahilevitz, Lior 2011-07-18Lior Strahilevitz (Chicago, left) has some interesting and thoughtful reactions at PrawfsBlawg to a study performed by Yale Law Women on gendered experiences of a Yale Law School education.  The comments are also interesting, and one of them in particular got me thinking.  An anonymous female YLS alum wrote:   "I don't know how much it relates to my being female, but I do know my confidence level took a beating at YLS. I went in far more confident (and eager to speak up) than I was when I left."

I don't dispute at all that there are gendered differences as reflected in the study.   If you look at the report's appendices, however, you will see that the only questions about the student's background relate to race and gender.  The reason that is significant to me is that (a) I went to a law school as small and just about as "elite" as Yale, (b) had exactly the kind of substantive first-year small sections that Yale apparently doesn't offer (mine were Contracts with Jack Getman, and Property with Paul Goldstein), (c) for law school purposes I'm probably whiter than your average white male (I'm Jewish), (d) nobody has ever described me as shy or retiring, and finally (e) I felt exactly the same way as the anonymous commenter over at PrawfsBlawg.  And I have pretty distinct recollections why.  I went to a large public high school (suburban Detroit) and public university (Michigan) and I was intimidated by the Harvards, Yales, Amhersts, Williams, etc. and by the Exeters and St. Albans and University Schools all around me.  I knew my LSAT score was at the very low end of the range.  Unlike my fellow students at Michigan, my fellow students, even in my supposedly unintimidating small section, seemed to have backgrounds and sophistications that I didn't have (advanced degrees, experience working as paralegals in fancy New York law firms, parents who were lawyers, etc.). 

As to the value of "speaking up" itself, I think that's very much a Yale thing, or an elite law school thing, or a law professor thing, or a law school thing, but I didn't speak up much in law school, and I've been a big law partner, a Fortune 1000 GC, and a law professor.  I had only one very Socratic professor, the late John Kaplan, who called on me once and scared the living crap out of me.  (He Images was a really nice man, but even looking at his picture now, right, scares the crap out of me.)  Moreover, I had some really smart classmates (at least five or six of them are law professors now, including Bob Weisberg at Stanford, Douglas Baird at Chicago, Jan Neuman at Lewis & Clark, Randy Hertz at NYU, Lynne Henderson at UNLV), but I have to say that I have quite a few memories of  things my professors said, but I cannot remember a single comment in class by a fellow student (except one:  in Trust & Estates, Howard Williams asked Dick Van Duyne, also a really smart guy, the following:  "Mr. Van Duyne, you are a Latin scholar.  What does nunc pro tunc mean?"  To which Dick replied, "Um, I don't know, maybe without tunc?").  No, I did what I think many students did when other students in large classes took the floor:  I tuned out and waited until the professor started back with whatever he (and as I recall they were all "hes", so there's another point regarding the reality of the gender issues) was covering.  And it impacts my reaction to being a law teacher:  I'm very concerned in my somewhat dry doctrinal areas (contracts, securities reg, business associations) that so-called Socratic approaches, even the warm-hearted kind, cause many of the other students to tune out.  (My default approach is probably more like a warm-hearted "Bueller, Bueller?")

The point is that the report appears to have important things to say about gender differences at Yale.  It also has some pointed and pragmatic recommendations for students and professors in addressing the particular problems of "speaking up" and student-faculty interaction.  But I'm not sure at all that it has anything fundamental to say about the inherent problems in legal education!

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Hi from your anonymous poster. Glad I followed you over here!

You're right that the value of "speaking up" is worth questioning. I think participation adds value for the student who is participating, but does it decrease value for the rest of the class? I can think of 3-4 classes over my 3 years in which I spoke up a lot, and I personally got more out of those classes because I was more engaged, but I don't doubt your theory that the rest of the class may tune out when students talk. (It's possible that that rule applies more to Socratic method than to volunteers asking interesting questions, though, which suggests the YLS survey asks good questions but perhaps reaches unsupportable conclusions.) Like you, my hardcore-Socratic class left me basically unable to learn the material because I was so busy being petrified.

Posted by: nutmegger | Apr 28, 2012 9:37:09 AM

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