Women in the Law

Do Women Pursue Law Degrees for Different Reasons Than Men?


Women who attend Harvard Law School have a different agenda—and a different law school experience—than men, according to a study by a working group of students.

Dean Elena Kagan commented on the findings during a panel discussion for journalists on Saturday in Philadelphia, the Bulletin reports. “Many women think of a law degree as a way to do good for others, and are far less likely to think of law in terms of private interests,” Kagan said.

Kagan elaborated in 2006 remarks to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. The study found that twice as many women as men said “helping others” was one of the most important factors to consider in picking a career.

Nor are women pursuing law to attain power, according to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy. The group found that only 20 percent of highly qualified female lawyers said having “a powerful position” was an important career goal, Kagan said in her 2006 speech.

The differing goals may explain why women are more likely to work in government, public interest, and education, according to Kagan. But she wonders if women are eschewing positions of power because they don’t think high-level jobs fit with their goal of doing good for others.

“Do women care so little about having an impact?” Kagan said in 2006. “About finding ways to bring their considerable talents to bear on the world’s problems? I just don’t believe it. I think women express themselves in this way only because in our society the concept of power unfortunately has become disconnected from the goal of improving our society.”

She also noted another troubling finding in the Harvard study: Women experience legal education differently, even though they arrive at the school with about the same credentials as men.

The study found that 33 percent of men considered themselves in the top 20 percent of their class in legal reasoning while only 15 percent of women did. Women also rated themselves lower for their ability to “think quickly on their feet, argue orally, write briefs, and persuade others.”

Kagan quotes one law student who said, “Guys think law school is hard, and we just think we’re stupid.”

“Now I’m not entirely sure what to make of such studies,” Kagan said. “Do women arrive at law school predisposed to self-doubt? Or does something happen in law school that contributes to these perceptions? In any case, we know one thing: There’s a problem here, and we need to figure out why it exists.”

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