Thursday, December 7, 2017

The benefits of a feminist legal education

After having taken a number of feminism courses in my undergraduate years as a part of my sociology degree, I figured it was only fitting to take feminist legal theory in law school. I was excited because this course offered an opportunity to take a class that did not seem like a traditional law school class but one more similar to my undergrad sociology classes. In the end the course was everything I hoped it would be, a chance to have conversations about very interesting topics without having to worry too much about the legal analysis, bar exam preparation, etc. Now that the course is over I find myself asking what the value of the class was other than providing a healthy mental break from the monotony of law school courses.

Before jumping into a discussion of the value of feminist legal theory I think it is important to define what feminist legal theory even is. The best definition I could find was provided by Leslie Francis and Patricia Smith, writing for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They write:
"Feminist philosophy of law identifies the pervasive influence of patriarchy and masculinist norms on legal structures and demonstrates their efforts on the material condition of women and girls and those who may not conform to cisgender understand how legal institutions enforce dominant gendered and masculinist norms." 
This seems like a good place to begin. While Leslie Francis and Patricia Smith were defining "feminist philosophy of law," the same definition applies to what feminist legal theory is. At least from my limited experience, the course was a critically reflective look at the way our society is structured and the way the judiciary, executive, and legislative branches of government legally justify patriarchy. This is immensely valuable the law is limited but powerful in terms of what it can do. As aspiring lawyers it is essential that we learn to deconstruct the law critically in order to do better in shaping the legal landscape of tomorrow.

One of the aspects of law school that I have a love-hate relationship with its length. Three years of school is great because it offers us the chance to find good jobs and start earning money sooner than other professional fields. This convenience comes at a great cost, it means we have a really limited time to learn the ins and outs of procedure, professional responsibility, legal research and writing, and specialization in a certain field of law. In this rush to learn how to follow the rules and be competent attorneys there is hardly enough time to deconstruct the law. There is little to no time to stop and wonder why certain aspects of the profession are the way that they are, to question whether there are better alternatives. In this crazy three year rush, patriarchy is reinforced. Unsurprisingly, the legal professional is one that has been historically shaped by white men and our current legal customs are the legacy of that. From what women are allowed to wear and how they are allowed to speak to sexual harassment in the workplace and the lack of female law firm partners, patriarchy is alive and well.  In the face of all of this, the value of feminist legal theory should be obvious. Any opportunity to exam and question in the law is valuable.

Feminism classes are clearly valuable in my eyes but this is still not a widely accepted viewpoint. While more and more people are seeing the value of feminism classes, it is still more popular to dismiss these types of courses as fringe classes for radical men-hating women. As Anna Diamond describes, this is the case for many reasons including misconceptions about what feminism is, misguided beliefs that we are in a "post-feminist" society, and doubts as to the real-world value of feminism classes.

It is ironic that one of the most popular reasons why people discount feminism classes is that they think those kinds of courses have nothing to offer them or they they think those courses are only meant for women. One of the reasons why I think feminism classes are essential is because of their intersectionality. As Ms. Diamond describes it, "Intersectionality tells us that there is no singular experience for women because of the way gender works in conjunction with race, ethnicity, social class, and sexuality." Indeed feminism does touch upon all of these topics and more. By creating the avenue to think critically about other aspects of society, which are undoubtedly relevant to everyone, feminism classes truly are classes that everyone could benefit from.

Ultimately, I found feminist legal theory to be a thrilling class that I very much looked forward to. As is typically the case with these types of courses, the class could be a bit of an echo-chamber. What I mean by that is that in general the class tended to agree on most subjects. While this did not hamper conversation, it does mean that the people who would probably benefit most from speaking about these kinds of subjects were not in the room. Nevertheless, the class was a valuable experience. If anything, I believe that classes such as these should be required of all law students the way professional responsibility and legal research and writing are. Perhaps then we could begin to think critically about the profession we are going into instead of being forced to conform to archaic customs.


Joterias! said...

Great post Omar! Like you, I found our Feminist Legal Theory (FLT) course to be a refreshing break from “traditional” law courses, which can be intellectually stifling and monotonous: we cull the law from readings, take practice exams, and then IRAC as many issues as possible in our finals. I appreciate that we were encouraged to stray from reductionist legal analysis in FLT.

It is a shame that our peers dismiss critical law courses despite constantly peppering their policy arguments with commentary on how the law shapes and is shaped by society, e.g., how the criminal justice discriminates against people of color. In other words, with prepositions that can only be tested or arrived at by means of interdisciplinary thinking/methods, like the ones FLT fosters. Thus, our peers shouldn’t summarily dismiss courses like FLT, but should enroll in a critical law course instead.

In fact, I agree with your point that law students should be required to take at least one critical law course before graduating. This would preclude courses like FLT from sounding like “echo-chambers,” and would help produce well rounded lawyers, who are adept in legal analysis and appreciate the impact of the law on society. Law schools in other countries already have such a requirement. In Mexico, law students at UNAM, ITAM, and the Escuela Libre de Derecho must take “philosophy of law.” [;;] Law students at the London School of Economics and Political Science must take “jurisprudence,” a course similar to philosophy of law. [] And law students at the University and Melbourne, and Australian National university must take “legal theory.” [;] These courses are meant to encourage law students to think theoretically about the impact of the law on society, much like FLT. Perhaps we should talk to our Dean about how befitting such a requirement would be in a law school housed in King Hall!

LJCarbajal said...

Thank you for your important post, Omar! In general, I think it is so valuable to have male allies championing the need for classes such as Feminist Legal Theory. It is important to stress that men have just as much to take from this class. Much of what is discussed is our collective lived experience through the lens of the theory we discuss. Men, by virtue of our patriarchal society, do not know what it is like to navigate the world, much less the legal world, as a woman. They also often do not seek out these conversations. When these conversations are initiated, often by the woman, some men have the tendency to feel defensive and thus may not allow the woman to adequately express her thoughts on the matter. Feminist Legal Theory would be a good space for practicing listening to those conversations, and help men navigate that initial defensiveness.

Classes such as FLT and Critical Race Theory are also extremely important as more and more women and minorities enroll in law school. It is well-known that some legal areas are overwhelmingly male and white. Often, this is attributed to self-selection, but just judging from my experience in OCIs, that is not necessarily true. What is true is that Big Law summer associate classes are largely male and white. Summer associate classes are the pipeline into big law, and as such we cannot diversify the area without diversifying the pipeline. Firms say that they are interested in doing so, but then fail to hire diverse candidates. Requiring the people who will one day be making the hiring decisions to take classes such as FLT and CRT will at least increase the chance that they will recognize their biases in evaluating candidates, and not simply hiring the person who, on the surface, seems most like them and their colleagues.

Nicolette said...


It's so refreshing to read such a post from a male ally! I enjoyed your deconstruction of the "patriarchal reinforcement" within law school, and your acknowledgement of some of the struggles women face. I too believe that students should be required to take at least one critical law class because regardless of which legal field you enter, you will interact with people from all races, cultures, experiences, and so forth. That being said, classes like this one, provide an opportunity for students to explore others' perspectives and experiences, unlike other straight to the point - "here's the law" - legal classes. Learning from and taking from my peers' insights in these courses are incredibly valuable because I'm being exposed and educated to perspectives I may run into in my profession, be it a co-worker, client, community partner, etc. These classes also force us to evaluate the way we think about the topics (and maybe alter it) unlike any other legal course. While I also find so much value in this course, I must admit that I was a little concerned with how an employer would view it on my transcript, but then again, I realized that I probably wouldn't want to work for an employer who doesn't find value in a Feminist Legal Theory course.