The devil in the legal details

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Apr 02, 2001 12:00 AM
Women are becoming lawyers in increasing numbers. Whether this is a triumph for the "second sex" or a failure of feminism may depend on what you think of lawyers. Women are expected to be the majority of students entering law school this fall, the New York Times reports. Women made up only 10 percent of first-year law students in 1970, but women comprised 49.4 percent of the 43,518 first-year law students in 2000, and so far more women than men have applied for law school this year. This is not necessarily good news, for either women or society. Sad, perhaps, but true: the greater the number of women in the law the less the prestige for the profession, says Deborah Rhode, who teaches at Stanford Law School. The profession becomes isolated in the "pink collar ghetto," as when a prestigious profession formerly dominated by men becomes increasingly female. (Think college professor.) The law isn't as prestigious as it once was, whatever the color of the collar. Lawyer jokes long ago replaced little-moron jokes as the stuff of low humor. Type in the words "lawyer jokes" on any Internet search engine and hundreds pop up on the screen. This one is typical: A lawyer meets the devil at a bar. The devil tells the lawyer that if he will sell him his soul, the soul of his wife and the souls of each of his three children he'll make him a full partner in the top law firm in town. The lawyer scratches his chin, pauses for a moment, and asks: "So what's the catch?" "Legal ethics" is the oxymoron everyone understands. John Watson, the behaviorist, says he could take any healthy infant at random, regardless of his intelligence, and make him into a lawyer. The richest and most famous names in the law are those famous for helping robbers, rapists and killers go free. "The first thing we do," says the conspirator in Shakespeare's King Henry VI, "let's kill all the lawyers." This is often quoted, and nearly always out of context, but it expresses the universal view of lawyers. So making lawyers of women is not likely to do much for women. Some feminists argue that feminization of the law will make the practice more "teamlike" and "less adversarial," but that's bad news for anyone caught in the toils of the judicial system. Who wants a (begin ital) nicer (end ital) lawyer when the price of niceness is a prison cell? Carol Gilligan, a Harvard University psychologist who sees women as the more caring sex, suggests that women lawyers could change the "structure of our society." Just how she expects them to do that isn't clear, but you can bet she doesn't picture the likes of Johnny Cochran and F. Lee Bailey in skirts. As in all professions women have entered, some will climb to the top. The president of the American Bar Association is a woman, but the law is nevertheless one in which women are more likely to claw themselves to the middle. They continue to face many obstacles in the law. They have trouble making partner in the big, high-pressure law firms where long hours make it especially difficult to balance family and career. Mothers who work outside the home remain responsible for 80 percent of their children's care and women are also more loath than men to reduce that part of their life. Lani Guinier, who teaches at Harvard Law School, says that women, even assertive women, are more easily intimidated than men in law school classes. She should know the power of intimidation. Bill Clinton nominated her to be assistant attorney general for civil rights and then humiliated her by withdrawing her name when others began looking at her radical views, which the president had not bothered to consider. Women, she says, aren't as aggressive as men in the highly competitive classrooms at the elite law schools: "Women ... feel more pressure to perform well for many reasons, including the fact that when they speak they feel as though they are speaking on behalf of women who are not present." This sounds like "gender" profiling, but it may also be true. Inexplicably, women don't perform as well as men on the LSAT, the test everyone takes before law school so it can be used as a predictor of academic performance. The proportion of women in the top 10th of the classes at the top 10 law schools has hit a plateau at about one-third, according to James F. Guyot, professor at City University of New York. This may slow their climb to the judiciary no matter how much everyone likes Judge Judy. So why do so many women want to be lawyers? It may be that so few of them have asked the devil: "What's the catch?"