Friday, October 23, 2009

The Career Question

One day in kindergarten, we were asked what our parents do. I informed the class that my father pumped gas (I loved the smell of gas at the time) and my mother was a lawyer. Neither of those statements could be further from the truth, but they illustrate that my both my fierce feminist streak and my desire to go to law school also developed at a young age. Now that my law school experience is coming to a rapid close, thoughts are on the inevitable: next steps. In thinking about career, family and my personal goals, I’ve come across several interesting articles that discuss gender dynamics in the legal profession, and how those dynamics have their roots in law school.

The first article is a study examining law students’ career motivations – the authors completed interviews with 15 men and 14 women during both first and second semester of their 1L year. The study looked at motivations for attending law school, barriers to career goals, and, during the second semester, the effect of first semester grades on the students’ aspirations. Many students’ concerns echo that of a typical law student: students enter law school drawn to public interest work but typically shift away from that work because of financial concerns; first year GPAs effect how students’ perceive themselves and their ability to obtain the “good” (corporate jobs); and thoughts about career/family balance come sharply into play.

What was interesting about the study is that the women had typically done better in undergrad, but then after first semester most had lower GPAs then the men. Most of the women then all lowered their expectations of employment based on their GPAs (conversely, the woman with the highest GPA discussed in her second interview going to a big firm and becoming partner). The women were typically more drawn to non-profit work, and the men assumed that they would have careers in the corporate world.

The perceptions of the work/family conflict were very interesting; 11 of the women and 9 of the men said they anticipate a conflict between their career and family life. However, the women anticipated this conflict differently than the men, assuming that they would take time off and/or work part-time when they had children. Many of the women did not anticipate being able to have both children and a career, and certainly not a career on partner-track. Several of the men felt that they would miss out on aspects of family life because of their work schedule, but did not anticipate having children and a family as a barrier to career (whereas many of the women did).

In another article on career developments for female law students, the authors recommend holistic career counseling that takes into account the age, gender, race and interests of the student. So often, as is the trouble with the article above, law school is equated with a firm job. Corporate work spells success and is what many law students are measured by; their ability to perform well in school and their ability to obtain one of these jobs. I have pursued only the stereotypically more “female” oriented work, that of public interest. I did not participate in OCI, and I have no intention of working for a firm. As with much of feminist theory (and adding in the question of masculinity theory), it is time to re-formulate what success is. Most law students don’t, for myriad reasons, end up going into corporate work. Why then do we continue to hold it as the ideal? Why is our notion of success so limited? If we begin to re-negotiate the value of career for both men and women, my hope is that gender barriers and perceptions among law students (and lawyers) will begin to lessen.

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