Photo by Craig Warga/Bloomberg
Photo by Craig Warga/Bloomberg

The Gender Bias in Law School Admissions

  • Gender Balance in Law & the “Leaky Pipe” Metaphor (Audio)
  • Editor’s Note: The authors of this post are a law school professor who writes frequently about legal education and the head of an organization aimed at making law school more transparent and affordable.

    By Deborah Jones Merritt, John Deaver Drinko/Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law, Ohio State Moritz College of Law, and Kyle McEntee, Executive Director, Law School Transparency

    When Hillary Clinton graduated from Yale Law School in 1973, less than a quarter of law students nationwide were female. Today, almost half of JD students are women. That’s significant progress, but the prospects for women lawyers aren’t as rosy as the 50-50 split suggests. The national average conceals a sharp gender divide: Female law students outnumber men at schools with weak reputations while men dominate class rosters at the most prestigious schools.

    At Yale, the U.S. News favorite for America’s top law school, just 46 percent of students are female. At Duke University and the University of Virginia, also highly ranked law schools, women make up only 42 percent of the student body. The school with the highest percentage of women students (65 percent) is low ranked Charlotte School of Law.

    This relationship between law school rank and the percentage of women students isn’t just anecdotal: across all ABA-accredited law schools, it reaches a sizable (and statistically significant) correlation of .381. Schools with a better rank, on average, enroll a substantially smaller percentage of women. And given the size of our database, the probability of that relationship occurring by chance is less than 1 in 1,000.

    Cheery reports that women make up half of all law students, in other words, mask a darker reality. Men claim significantly more of the seats at schools that will launch them on the most successful career paths.

    Prestigious law schools place their graduates on the fast track to lucrative and powerful careers. Four of the Supreme Court’s eight Justices graduated from Harvard Law School; three graduated from Yale; and one earned her degree from Columbia. Lower court judges, partners at the largest law firms, and law school professors display similar pedigrees.

    In fact, when we looked more closely at job outcomes, we found a stark inverse relationship between the percentage of women enrolled at a school and that school’s initial placement success. The University of Chicago placed 91 percent of its 2015 graduates in jobs requiring bar admission — but enrolls just 44 percent women. Whittier Law School boasts a class that is 59 percent women, but placed just 21 percent of its most recent graduates in lawyering jobs.

    Once again, these are not anecdotal outliers. In 2015, the correlation between the percentage of women enrolled at a law school and the percentage of its graduates securing jobs that required bar admission reached a whopping -.520. That’s a worrisomely large correlation, one that’s unusual in social science analyses of human behavior.

    Even more disturbing, this relegation of women to low-status law schools is new — and growing. The pattern didn’t exist in 2001 when law schools first reached gender parity. Traces of the pattern began to emerge in 2006, and it was more prominent by 2011. Today, the discrepancy is stark.

    Why aren’t more women attending the top law schools, the ones that will give them the best chance to shatter glass ceilings? It’s unlikely that female law students prefer less prestigious schools or weaker job outcomes. Statistics from the National Association for Law Placement, in fact, show that women are just as likely as men to seek entry-level jobs requiring bar admission.

    Instead, the timing of the gender bias suggests that it stems partly from law schools’ increased focus on gaming their U.S. News rank. Schools tailor their admission and scholarship offers to produce the highest possible LSAT median for an incoming class. This LSAT mania has little to do with recruiting the most talented class; it is an attempt to win a few more points in the U.S. News rat race. With the recent decline in law school applications, schools have become even more concerned about maintaining their place in that race.

    Women, on average, score lower than men on the LSAT’s multiple choice questions — even though they earn higher GPA’s in college and offer other strong credentials for law school admission. So, as schools chase LSAT scores to polish their U.S. News rank, women get the short end of the stick.

    LSAT scores perform a useful service in admissions: very low scores warn that a candidate may not succeed in law school or on the bar exam. Scores may also help schools assess undergraduate records from unfamiliar colleges. Those scores, however, should not drive admission policies as forcefully as they do — and they should play very little role in scholarship awards.

    The legal profession has tilted floors as well as glass ceilings. For women to shatter the ceilings, they need to start on the same footing as men. That begins with law school admissions. Law schools may not yet have recognized the gender tilt in their admission and scholarship policies, but our research makes that bias clear.

    To read the full report by Merritt and McEntee, titled “The Leaky Pipeline for Women Entering the Legal Profession,” click here.

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