Women not as engaged in law school, survey says

If there is one thing Amy Kho has learned so far in law school, it is to raise her hand quickly if she wants to be noticed in class.

The second-year student said it seems like the male students at the University of Denver College of Law are always getting there first. And although she doesn’t want to make generalizations, it feels like men do most of the talking during class discussions.

“It comes down to the individual,” Kho said. “But there’s definitely those students who feel like they have to answer every question. There are some competitive people who might feel if they answer the questions, they’ll get a leg up in the class.”

Kho’s experience may ring true with her fellow female law students. And it is backed up by research recently published in the 2010 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, a national roundup of responses from almost 25,000 law students at 77 participating law schools.

The study shows that 47 percent of female students frequently ask questions, while 56 percent of male students do.

“Female students are less likely to place themselves in situations they perceive to be risky,” said Lindsay Watkins, the survey’s project manager at the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Female students were more likely to report working hard in law school to either avoid embarrassment in front of their peers, or out of a fear of failure, than were their male classmates.”

Female students also said they were less likely to approach faculty members in class, send them e-mail or discuss assignments.

This finding has created discussions in classrooms and chat rooms where most school administrators said they felt men and women were equal in their classrooms. But a few anonymous female students said they did feel sheepish in their early law-school days.

James Rosenblatt, dean at Mississippi College School of Law, said professors at his school work hard to keep the education gender neutral and challenging for all.

“Our professors consciously focus on the development of all our students,” he said. “Part of this development consists of moving students outside their comfort zones. Our professors employ teaching methods that require students to work in group situations, to engage with professors and to speak in front of groups.”

Changes in law school curriculum, an emphasis on presenting women the opportunity to hold leadership positions and more female professors are some factors that will help women succeed in the law, said Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School, who is an expert on women and the law.

“I’ve noticed as the curriculum evolves from the hypercompetitive, individualistic Socratic method to more collaborative projects, skill-based work, the gender difference are less of an issue,” Hanna said. “It allows people to draw on their individual strengths.”

One suggestion the LSSSE report had was that law school admissions offices and pre-law programs could offer more counseling to prospective and enrolled students. Focused advice could help these students find direction and encourage them to become more engaged in school rather than avoiding it or each other.

Deborah Epstein Henry, creator of consulting firm Flex-Time Lawyers, suggests female students focus on skills like networking, taking on leadership roles and finding a personal champion who recognizes and publicizes their talents.

In fact, Henry has a whole chapter devoted to how female law students must do more self-marketing her recent book, “Law & Reorder: Legal Industry Solutions for Restructure, Retention, Promotion & Work/Life Balance.”

“A lot of students think it’s just enough to be talented and a worker bee, Henry said.  “But the difference between those who thrive and those that whither is the intangibles. … You need to differentiate yourself.”

Henry believes law schools must do more to encourage female students to raise their hands through more on-campus development programs.

Kho and other female law students said their schools offer a variety of extra-curricular events and groups to spur participation among women. At the University of Denver, she knows of a parenting group, a women’s club and mentoring opportunities.

“There are always resources if you’re willing to look for them,” Kho said.

By Karen Dybis for The National Jurist