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book review: A Woman’s Guide to Law School

Posted by pocochina on May 12, 2007

So I should’ve bought this book six months ago, but shoulda coulda godiva, so I’m just gonna go ahead and review the parts that that I read.

I think that Hirshman has the rare gift of being able to discuss narrow social issues in privileged language without being exclusive.  Now, I’m saying that as a middle-middle class white college graduate, so I may not be the best judge, but I didn’t have that niggling kind of discomfort that tells you “ooops, this is whitey only material.”  (This also sounds true about her more recent Get to Work, about high-powered corporate women at work, although I haven’t read it yet.)

That got me thinking about law school and privilege.   My undergraduate university was an expensive, expensive school, but one that was generous with both need- and merit-based aid (even with two working parents, though not wealthy ones, I received about a half scholarship, which I’m sure wasn’t all due to my SAT and AP scores), so there was more of a socioeconomic mix than you’d expect, but of course with tons of class privilege mixed in.  Law school seems like a different breed though, because as an undergraduate you’re with future business execs, but also foreign service members and teachers, so you know certain privileges aren’t going to last a lifetime, at least not for everyone.  But, well, a JD from a decent program (especially the one I’m off to next fall) pretty much guarantees that if you’re not wealthy five years out, it truly is a choice, and even if you’ve chosen the noble public service route, well, you’re still doing okay.  So some recognition of privilege is not only justified, but called for.  It’s probably even more necessary for those of us who have never honestly expected to have this kind of class mobility.  To be accepted at the top, guess what, you do have to at least be able to pass – not fair, but there it is.  This, incidentally, is my favorite thing about Law Students for Choice.  It’s largely people who, if Roe is ever overturned, will still have access to that right, but are still committed to reproductive justice for all.

Hirshman’s also good at “this is not for the best, it may be wrong, but here’s how to nail it anyway.”  This especially applies to the LSAT and the Socratic method.  I haven’t experienced the wonder of the Socratic method yet, but the LSAT, for me, was a HUGE deal.  It’s probably what got me into the school I’ll be attending, and statistically, even at such a selective school, I’ll probably have scored better than a lot of my classmates.  This is a weird deal for me.  Hirshman found that women do slightly less well than men on the LSAT – so why did I beat out almost every dude that took the test?  I’m not sure whether I should feel about that.  Either way, my percentile shows that I’m a special little snowflake – but a special little snowflake who took two semesters of logical reasoning and got a test prep class as a graduation gift.  So why don’t other women do as well? (It should be noted that this book is about ten years old; maybe we’ve evened thihgs out since then.)  I’m glad we use the LSAT, but I understand why people are against it.  And, of course, in a patriarchal world that teaches women that you’re stupid or you’re ugly, well, I’m not surprised that women who might do well don’t bother taking the test, or don’t bother studying as hard as I did (and I studied hard).  Even for me, I don’t know if it’s because of a patriarchal society, or because growing up wasn’t too easy on my self-esteem, but it’s hard for me to accept that yes, I really am smarter than lots of people.  So what gives, and how is that lurking doubt going to affect me in a classroom full of a hundred of my peers?  That’s the other thing I like about Hirshman, she seems to acknowledge that yes, women are going to have that experience, it’s going to be disproportionate to our male peers, and those heavily invested in white capitalist patriarchal privilege will rub vinegar in that particular wound.  I don’t know how I’ll deal with it, but I suspect it will be a great comfort to know for a fact that I’m not alone in that experience.  I expect it will be an especially difficult transition from a Women’s Studies and Politics background in a woman-heavy school to the world of “gender-neutral” (read:  dude-friendly) legal education, at a school where women are almost half of the student body.

I also had a relatively healthy argument with myself on whether or not I liked her “Femscore” system, which ranks law schools by women’s raw numbers in the student body, the faculty, and their “success,” measured by the degree to which women in the class were represented proportionately in the law review and the Order of the Coif (nerdy legal honors society).  When she counts faculty women, she only counts those on the tenure track, saying basically that she doesn’t want to add to the denegration of part-time faculty, but if there’s a pink-collar job in the legal academy, it’s hidden in the part-time legal writing faculty.  In the end, of course, it’s uncomfortable to know that even the most well-educated women are held back by gender bias, but absolutely critical to expose, for which I commend the author.  I’d have wanted to write gently (do not fear, young grasshopper…..and then been tempted with the inflated statistics provided by admissions boards), but Hirshman tells it like it is.

I strongly suspected I’d like Linda Hirshman when I read reviews of Get to Work, and she did not disappoint.  It’s a powerful, and vital, feminist statement to get to equality by acknowledging that the echelons of power, like the legal profession, are not equal, and giving the rest of us a handy premier on how to help ourselves fix that.  Hard-eyed, realistic, but also useful and hopeful.

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