Studying Women And Performance In Law School Guinier Suggests Changing The Way Law Schools Teach And Measure Achievement.

Posted: April 17, 1997

Women, on average, make mediocre law school students. That's a fair summary of the findings from a new study of law students at the University of Pennsylvania. According to the study, women participate less in class than men, receive lower grades and fewer honors, and rate their school experience more negatively.

The chief author, Penn law professor Lani Guinier, has impeccable liberal and feminist credentials. Guinier, a former Yale Law School classmate of President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, first gained national recognition when the President tapped her to be his chief civil rights attorney in 1993 but withdrew her nomination when critics assailed her views on voting-rights issues as too radical and left-wing. No doubt her recent book, Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School and Institutional Change, will once again embroil her in controversy.

Guinier and her co-authors examined the academic performance of 981 students at Penn over a three-year period. They also analyzed these students' undergraduate performances and LSAT scores to see if female law students performed less well because they were less qualified to begin with. They weren't. If anything, the women who entered Penn Law had somewhat better qualifications, with higher grades and undergraduate class rankings and only very slightly lower LSAT scores than their male counterparts. Yet, the men outperformed the women in each year of law school, being three times more likely than female students to rank in the top 10 percent of the class during their first year and twice as likely to do so in the second and third years.

Guinier blames female students' lower performance on a law school culture that ``emphasizes aggressiveness, legitimizes emotional detachment and demands speed.'' Women, she says, are intimidated in this atmosphere. Her solution? Change the way law schools teach and measure students' achievement. Guinier thinks law schools should abandon the Socratic teaching method, in which professors grill students with series of rapid-fire questions that can reduce the fainthearted to mush. She suggests small-group, collaborative learning experiments, though she is short on specifics.

But who would attend law schools that abandoned the highly competitive atmosphere present in today's best law school classrooms? And who would hire graduates of these new, more sensitive law schools? Certainly not the nation's top law firms.

Guinier claims that failure to thrive in the macho environment of an Ivy League law school is no predictor of later professional inadequacy. But studies of the legal profession show that women lawyers are far less likely to make partner than men and, although their starting salaries are about the same as their male counterparts', a growing earnings gap appears within the first few years and grows significantly over time.

Is this just sex discrimination at work? Maybe a portion of it is, but much of it may simply reflect the larger premium the market places on the very characteristics in which male law students excel: the aggressiveness, emotional detachment and quick-wittedness that Guinier talks about.

At the risk of being called a sexist, may I suggest that many of the women Guinier describes in her book would be more successful and happier in fields other than law? (So would many men - there are too many lawyers in the United States anyway.) Those assertive, articulate women who remained would likely embody the requisite skills to succeed not only in law school but in the profession.

For years, mainstream feminists have been insisting that men and women are the same (apart from their obvious reproductive functions). More recently, however, feminist scholars like Harvard psychology professor Carol Gilligan have suggested that women speak In A Different Voice, the title of her path-breaking work on female psychological and moral development. But even the ``difference feminists'' refuse to acknowledge that biology plays a huge role in explaining how men and women differ in behavior and performance. A substantial and growing body of scientific evidence bears this out, but feminists have been quick to denounce such research.

As British authors Anne Moir and David Jessel argue in their 1988 book Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women: ``To maintain that [men and women] are the same in aptitude, skill or behavior is to build a society based on a biological and scientific lie.''

Forcing law schools to change their teaching methods won't make sex-differences disappear, nor will it eliminate the social consequences of those average differences, much as Guinier and other feminists might hope.

Linda Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C.

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