Girls’ Guide to Law School

I just stumbled across Alison Monahan’s blog. In an interview about her blog and life she is asked whether going to law school was worth it. I think her reply is thought-provoking and worth sharing with women lawyers.

 I don’t think you can say, in the abstract, that law school is “worth it” or “not worth it.” Sure, you could calculate the cost to attend and your expected level of earnings over a given career path, and say you’ll be financially better off (or not) if you go to law school and everything goes according to plan. But that calculation leaves out a lot – Will you like your job? Will your work be meaningful? Will you be able to eat dinner with your kids (or even have time to have them)? Will this path make you happy?

These are big questions, and most of them can only be answered in retrospect. The mission for the prospective law student is to get as close to an answer in the here-and-now as they realistically can.

The way to do that, I think, is to find out as much as possible about the profession, and to talk to lots of practicing (and former) lawyers. When people are gathering information, it’s critical to be aware of natural heuristic biases (paying more attention to information that confirms your preexisting opinion, for example, and less to information that contradicts it).

 The hardest part of this analysis is to find a way to really listen to what people are telling you. There’s a lot of wishful thinking out there, and law schools, to be frank, sometimes prey on this. The reality is that law’s a difficult profession, and it’s not a path to guaranteed riches. For the right person, it’s a good option. But far too many prospective students either fail to do their research, or put aside the feeling that maybe this isn’t a good idea, and end up bitter and disgruntled.

I’m very intrigued by the effect the legal profession has on women. So I really like the tagline of Alison’s blog – underneath the Girls’ Guide to Law School it says “Get in, Get Through, Stay You”. It touches a nerve for me  personally, because after 2 years in a law firm I felt like I had multiple personality disorder.  I’d put on a suit and sing the Ally McBeal theme song and know by the time I arrived at work I needed to be a different person. My research is showing me that hundreds and thousands of women lawyers out there have sacrificed a large part of who they are in order to survive as a lawyer. Law firms still, by and large, tend to be a very male space. It’s not about statistics, in fact it doesn’t always make a huge difference if there are are many women in the firm. The issue is that in the legal environment, everyone is expected to think and act in a masculine rather than a feminine way.

Mary Ovenstone, a leadership and executive coach, is currently researching ‘the neurological differences between the male and female brain’ for her thesis. She says it was always taught that there was only one language centre in the brain. In fact, there are six found on both sides of the brain.  The male brain uses one language centre found on the left hemisphere, the female brain uses all six.  I’m hoping I can convince Mary to share some of her work in workshops with lawyers.

Here are some more differences I’ve pulled off the ‘net:

  • The male brain is highly specialized, using specific parts of one hemisphere or the other to accomplish specific tasks. The female brain is more diffused and utilizes significant portions of both hemispheres for a variety of tasks.
  • Men are able to focus on narrow issues and block out unrelated information and distractions. Women naturally see everyday things from a broader, “big-picture” vantage point.
  • Men can narrowly focus their brains on specific tasks or activities for long periods of time without tiring. Women are better equipped to divide their attention among multiple activities or tasks.
  • Men are able to separate information, stimulus, emotions, relationships, etc. into separate compartments in their brains, while women tend to link everything together.
  • Men see individual issues with parts of their brain, while women look at the holistic or multiple issues with their whole brain (both hemispheres).
  • Men have as much as 20 times more testosterone in their systems than do women. This makes men typically more aggressive, dominant and more narrowly focused.
  • In men, the dominant perceptual sense is vision, which is typically not the case with women. All of a woman’s senses are, in some respects, more finely tuned than those of a man.

If you think about this list for a moment- can you imagine what it does to a person if they are constantly trying to behave in a way that is not their norm? Being subtly, and not so subtly, pulled towards viewing matters as others would have them see them? Denying their own feelings because they might be viewed as “inappropriate” or “unprofessional” or “illogical”.

New studies show that companies which have equal or greater numbers of women on their boards do better! That’s right, the bottom line is positively affected by a good male/female mix. Why? Because if we harness our different ways of seeing the world we can become more than the sum of our parts. We bring different styles and methods and solutions and ways of negotiating. Women and men working as teams are powerful. If the intuitive and connected half of the room are spending all their energy on trying to sound as decisive and focused as the the other (male) half, we’re not harnessing anything.

Girls, when you think about entering the legal profession, there’s a lot more to consider than if you’ll be able to read your kids stories at night.  How about being prepared to give up your way of viewing the world?

I’m currently designing a 1 day workshop for women lawyers to address some of these things, incorporating an Individual Values Assessment by the Barrett Values Centre.  Please ask if you’d like to know more.


5 responses to “Girls’ Guide to Law School

  1. Don’t know about South Africa but in the USA, today’s young lawyers have more to think about than fatuous ruminations about staying true to yourself. Try worrying about eking out a living when you can’t find a job while saddled with a lifetime’s crippling debt? See a recent story from Oregon at
    — Mo


    • I hear you. There is indeed a shortage of jobs and too many lawyers are being trained, and a host of other issues. I think where I stand it is from a viewpoint where I see lawyers who have “made it” finding themselves spiritually, morally and emotionally bankrupt at the end of the day. This is often after 10/ 20 years. This leads to breakups, and breakdowns and can be as damaging as financial bankruptcy. For this reason, I don’t see it as fatuous rumination to worry about staying true to yourself as a lawyer. It’s just part and parcel of wanting to lead a conscious life. The stories of crippling debt and worthless law degrees are horrifying. The only antidote I can see right now is education – law students must educate themselves about what they are getting into, their vision for their lives and not buy into a vision of life as a lawyer which actually doesn’t exist anymore. (or only for a rare few).


  2. I also thought her reply was quite insightful. I read her interview a while back and it really got me motivated to look at some GDL courses. My aunt who has been through law school told me about the issues you have “staying you”. Although I intend to stay myself, who knows what’s in store.

    I liked the differences you posted, quite intriguing. I think both genders working together really creates an atmosphere that breeds productivity and originality, much like you point out.


    • Dear Emma How much do you know about Integrative Law? I’m fascinated to have discovered law schools around the world offering courses that help law students integrate who they are with the work they do. But the mainstream schools are resisting this. My best suggestion for now is to read Lawyers as Peacemakers by J Kim Wright in order to realise how many wonderful ways there are to practise law that you will most likely never hear about at law school or in a big firm. I hope to keep building up the links list in this blog that will also assist people in hearing about the massive paradigm shift in law. Women law students need new role models! I am finding new role models in law for myself every week right now, emails that make me weep and whoop! Sadly I didn’t have access to any of this when I studied law or practised in a big firm. Keep searching, keep connecting!


  3. Pingback: “Don’t leave me now, Don’t say it’s the end of the road” | Shark Free Waters

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